Summer relief all dried up (The News Journal - Wilmington, Delaware)

Federally funded program to help the needy stay cool is broke

By Robin Brown • June 13, 2008

There will be no help this summer from a federally funded program that once gave out millions of dollars a year in cooling assistance to the state's working poor, elderly and disabled.

The reason is simple.

There's no money.

It all went to winter aid.

What's left is limited state aid for those most in need, officials say, and some charity help.

Whatever is there can't come soon enough, says Shirae Aikens-Mowbray of Bear, a 36-year-old mother of two teens.

Unable to work after a crippling back injury, she said, "The disability check I receive won't cover the bills ... and the gasoline prices kick butt."

She has been seeking help at churches and service programs, but said she would have applied for state help already -- if she had known it was available.

"Right now, we're going hit-and-miss ... and we're misinformed," she said. "I'm hanging in there, but you don't know who to go to for help."

For decades, the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program has helped poor, elderly and disabled Americans pay winter heating bills and, in recent summers, cooling costs.

In 2006, more than 15,000 Delawareans got federal winter aid through the program, News Journal files say. About $3 million in summer grants helped about 11,000 residents that year.

Annual federal grant money comes to the Delaware Energy Assistance Program through the state-run Division of State Service Centers, which contracts with the nonprofit Catholic Charities to handle its administration, applications and grants.

The policy is that money not used in winter aid rolls over for summer.

The state's official Web site describes its Summer Cooling Assistance Program, and tells potential recipients, "It is important to call Catholic Charities to find out where and how to apply for assistance."

Calls to listed offices will be less than encouraging.

A recorded message at the New Castle County site, for example, says nothing about the program, except, "There will be no summer program."

A message on a program leader's phone says, "If you're calling about help with your electric bills, our program has no funds available at this time."

Neither directs the needy to other sources of possible help.

Nineteen-year-old Lakeshia Martinez -- who, like Aikens-Mowbray, lives in Sparrow Run off U.S. 40 in Bear -- says she and her sister, Vickie, 22, could use help with summer power bills.

"With the air-conditioning, our bill this month will probably be $500 because it was so hot," she said, adding, "I don't want my baby to get heat stroke." The child care worker said she worries about the cost of running a night light and the hall light that help her 3-year-old, Rebecca Ann, sleep.

Already pressed to pay their mortgage and put gas in their truck, she and her sister -- who has a 2-year-old, Christina Renee -- are considering a smaller home.

For now, she said, they turn off the air-conditioning often, use fans, get help from their boyfriends -- and work "a lot, a lot of overtime."

Wintertime aid ate up fund

Communications Director Jay Lynch of the state's Department of Health and Social Services, described what led to the lack of summer crisis help from his department.

"What happened this year was there was a winter crisis, a surge in applications," he said. All of the state's annual federal grant to that program was given out to the needy in winter, "thus leaving the LIHEAP pot dry."

The same thing happened last year, he said.

Lynch said the state Web site telling the needy to call Catholic Charities -- also where the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services sends Delaware inquiries -- is out of date.

But the needy can apply for state aid by contacting the state service centers. There are several qualifications that must be met, Lynch said, and income and bills must be documented.

But many working poor in Sparrow Run get rejected for help by the state and smaller charity programs using federal income guidelines, said Earlene Vann of nonprofit CHILD Inc.'s Family Friends Resource Center in Sparrow Run.

Every day, residents come to the center, "people who are $10, $15, $20 over the guidelines and they can't get help," she said. "Gasoline prices are putting everybody in crisis."

Act before cutoff notices

Just how much state money is available for summer utility aid through service centers' Family Support Services Program and Crisis Assistance Program is unknown. Aid comes from those programs' assistance budgets but is not a set or separate sum, Lynch said.

Details of eligibility requirements were not immediately available, he said, but the process and grants are much like the lapsed Summer Cooling Assistance Program.

Instead of Catholic Charities taking applications, Lynch said, "you would apply directly at the state service center." Help can include utility bill help and, in some cases. window unit air conditioners, he said.

Requests get prioritized for "at-risk populations," he said. "It takes a couple of days to a week to process the application," but aid may be faster. For example, he said, if someone applies at a service center "with a shut-off notice -- and they qualify -- we're immediately going to contact the vendor and say, 'Hey, don't shut them off.' "

Advocate Vann urges residents to act before cut-off notices, saying, "Delmarva will work with you."

Losing power can have a higher cost than hot air for residents in federally subsidized housing. "People can lose their Section 8 if their utilities get cut off," Vann said, "and become homeless."

Delmarva Power has fund

Low-income families that meet federal aid guidelines can get up to about $400 a year in utility aid through Delmarva Power's Good Neighbor Energy Fund, said Maj. Philip DeMichael, regional director of the Salvation Army, which administers the fund.

The total available -- about $20,000 this quarter -- depends on public donations and Delmarva's matching gift, he said.

An anonymous Delawarean also donates about $15,000 a year for utility aid specifically for the elderly and disabled. Applications are being accepted for grants from that fund.

Bear resident Aikens-Mowbray, who said she cut her power bill by $200 by running air conditioning only at night and keeping blinds closed, said she will seek help anywhere and everywhere she can.

Hunting for help takes time, gasoline, paperwork and some embarrassment, she said, but "I have to, for my children's sake."