New enrollment for fuel assistance has doubled already in western Massachusetts
This winter, western Massachusetts residents are in for some whopping heating bills, as the region heavily relies on natural gas and oil.
For some, government assistance programs could help. The federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP, can help certain households pay their heating bills during the winter and spring.
Representatives from the three organizations that administer LIHEAP across western Massachusetts joined us to talk about the assistance and the challenges they're facing this year.
Teresa Lefebvre represented Berkshire Community Action Council (BCAC), Peter Wingate spoke for Community Action Pioneer Valley (CAPV), which covers Franklin and Hampshire counties, and Stephen Huntley joined on behalf of Valley Opportunity Council (VOC), which serves residents of Hampden County.
Carrie Healy, NEPM: Stephen, who should apply for LIHEAP?
Stephen Huntley, VOC: So we really suggest to anybody that is having a hard time heating their house to reach out to us, because it's based on income and there's house size — there's a lot of different qualifications. It's not a simple test. So we ask you to just reach out and we'll walk you through whether you're eligible and how to proceed.
Peter, in Franklin and Hampshire counties, how best does someone — who has not previously used fuel assistance —start that application process? Is it done over the phone?
Peter Wingate, CAPV: It's actually pretty exciting — now we are set up that we can do it three different ways. We can either have people come right to us and we have sites in Greenfield, and in Northampton, in Ware and Orange. People can do it over the phone, or what we're really excited about is there's now an online way to do it through a portal and you can actually apply right online.
Theresa, how does somebody apply from Berkshire County?
Theresa Lefebvre, BCAC: They either give us the call or they go online. They can also come in to apply for fuel assistance.
And Stephen, how do Hampden County residents do that for the first time?
Stephen Huntley, VOC: It's all the same in all three regions. We all have an online option. We have in-person, we have drop-in, we have appointments that folks can make, or phone call.
It sounds like there could be an awful lot of people reaching out for assistance this year. How are staffing levels and the demand? How is that looking in the Berkshires, Teresa?
Theresa Lefebvre, BCAC: Last year at this time we had over 400 new people. This year we have over 800 new people. So it's a little stressful, but we're getting the job done, you know, one client at a time.
So those were applicants. You have enough staff to cover that?
Theresa Lefebvre, BCAC: We do the best we can. Of course, we don't feel we have enough staff, but I mean, we do. We've done it before. It's just a little bit more than it's been, but we will rock through this.
Is that also what we're seeing in Hampshire, Franklin and Hampden Counties?
Peter Wingate, CAPV: Similarly, our numbers are up quite a bit this year. We've had over 1,000 households that had never applied before, first time applicants this year, which we're really excited about. And our overall application pool is almost double what we have [had in the past].
So we would certainly like more staff and we are in the process of hiring more staff. The staff we do have are doing just an amazing job of keeping their heads above water. But we do need people to be just a little bit patient with us. We'll get to everybody just as quickly as we can. And we do have processes in place for anybody who's in an emergency situation. If they're almost out of oil, we can try to help those people a little faster.
Yeah, I was wondering how long it takes from completing that application to getting some help in making those payments. How long does that kind of take, in general? I'll turn to Stephen representing Hampden County.
Stephen Huntley, VOC: So we are absolutely very busy as everybody on the call and everybody statewide is. We have a little over 7,000 applications in house right now. And last year we were about half of that at this time.
So we'd hired 24 people and it's still going to take the better part of 45 days, I'm afraid, to approve folks from when they apply to when they get done. But, bit by bit, we are moving through them. We are absolutely moving through them. And as Peter suggested, we do work for those folks who have no heat — we push them through quicker and there's processes, to get them delivery of oil, quickly.
I want to go back to Peter. Is there anything about this process that the state or even the feds could change to improve the situation for staffing or the application process?
Peter Wingate, CAPV: We do have the big change where we've really found some ways as a state to make it easier for people to apply, which we're really excited about. This portal that we have now, is really a game-changer for, I think, all of us and certainly for people who need to apply for these services.
But, I think you've heard each one of us throw the numbers out there, it's double the demand. And so, I think we're all facing a new reality and all trying to staff-up to meet that demand. But it is a challenge this year.
Theresa, what does somebody need to bring when they decide that they need to apply? What kind of paperwork are they going to need to amass?
Theresa Lefebvre, BCAC: They all need to prove citizenship, their income for the household, a mortgage statement, a lease, things like that to prove where they live and that they're a US citizen.
Stephen, does LIHEAP actually run out of funds? Is that a concern?
Stephen Huntley, VOC: It never has, as long as the 21 years that I've been here. They're able to find money to make sure all clients that apply and that we approve to receive the benefit, receive the benefit.
The hard part is we're given an allocation for managing the program. In years like this, we just have to bring staff on and hope the money will catch up. Because we're given an allocation in the beginning of the year for paying for staff, and we just — it isn't going to be enough for us this year. So we're just bringing staff on anyways.
I'll open this up to all of you: What should the public know about fuel assistance? What do they find surprising to learn during the application process?
Peter Wingate, CAPV: I would say from the perspective, where we work in Hampshire and Franklin County, that a lot more people are eligible for these programs than realize it, that the income guidelines are fairly generous.
I'm just going to throw a couple of numbers out there: For a household of four, you can earn a little over $81,000 and still be eligible for these programs. So, a lot of people are self-selecting-out when we would want them to apply.
Theresa Lefebvre, BCAC: A lot of people don't realize that they're eligible for the program and they're actually shocked when they find out that they are. And they're telling more and more people, which is really, really good.
Stephen Huntley, VOC: I also want to throw out that those that are deemed eligible for fuel assistance also get a discount on their utility bill. And not everybody realizes that or understands that as being part of the program. But within the major utility companies, there's a discount offered on their electric bill.
And this is open to not just household owners, but it's to some renters, too, right?
Stephen Huntley, VOC: That's right. That's right. We have renters that pay for oil. We also have renters that are "heat included." We will send them a portion of their rent later in the year, as the program winds down, it's usually March-ish that we send that out.