March 12, 2010

Cold rush: Heat aid goes fast

DIETER BRADBURY

— By

Staff Writer

Applications for home heating assistance have increased 22 percent this winter, as Mainers shiver through a recession marked by layoffs and sharp jumps in the costs of food, health care and other necessities.

Requests for help under the federally funded Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program have climbed even though home heating oil costs 96 cents a gallon less than it did a year ago.

Some agencies have hired new staff to respond to the flood of applications, and private businesses and other organizations are redoubling their efforts to offer their own assistance programs to people who might not qualify for federal assistance.

The latest private effort was announced Monday by Dead River Co. and Hannaford Supermarkets. Dead River, a fuel distributor, said it would match up to $100,000 in donations by Hannaford customers in a program to be administered by United Way chapters in Maine and New Hampshire.

The ''Share the Warmth'' program will help people who can't get federal assistance or whose needs aren't being met by that program or others.

Meg Baxter, president of United Way of Greater Portland, said fuel assistance calls to the 211 telephone help line have jumped more than 300 percent since last year. She said many people are struggling to choose between paying their fuel bills or buying food.

''What is also eye-opening is how many of these requests are from people who have never needed assistance before, or do not qualify for federal heating programs,'' Baxter said.

As of last week, $34.7 million in benefits had been paid out under the federal fuel program, compared with $17.7 million at the same time last winter, said Dan Simpson, spokesman for MaineHousing, which administers the program.

The number of applications processed by last week was 54,530, or about 10,000 more than the same week a year ago, Simpson said, a 22 percent increase.

He said the state expects that 68,500 households will get help through the federal fuel program by the time the heating season ends in April, compared with 48,521 households last winter.

Maine's experience reflects a national trend, according to the National Energy Assistance Directors Association, which represents state-run assistance programs. That group expects 7.3 million U.S. households will get fuel aid this winter, about 1.5 million more than last winter, a 25 percent increase.

''Many of these families live paycheck to paycheck,'' said Mark Wolfe, the group's executive director. ''They might have been middle class last week before they lost their jobs, but now they're not. These are record numbers of people.''

In Maine, the statewide average price of home heating oil was $2.38 a gallon Monday, compared with $3.34 a gallon at this time in January 2008, according to the state Office of Energy Independence and Security.

Betsy Sawer-Manter, who oversees energy assistance programs at People's Regional Opportunity Program, said requests for assistance are at record highs, even with lower oil prices.

''We are seeing more people who are losing jobs or being cut down from a full-time position to more of a part-time position,'' she said.

PROP is one of 10 Community Action Program agencies in Maine that process applications for the federal fuel assistance program.

The York County Community Action Corp. has seen a 15 percent to 20 percent increase in fuel assistance applications, said Brad Bohon, the agency's communications director.

''It's not just because of energy, it's because of other costs, like grocery expenses, high mortgage rates, health coverage costs,'' he said. ''Everything seems to have risen.''

Bohon said most people are convinced prices will escalate again -- as they did in July, when heating oil was selling for record Maine prices above $4.50 a gallon.

The federal government responded to last summer's prices by allocating additional money for the fuel assistance program. Maine's funding climbed from $24 million last year to $49 million this year.

In addition, Congress raised income eligibility limits, making more households eligible for the program.

The added funding has increased the average benefit per household to $940 this year, up from $757 last year.

State officials had expected the number to drop because more families were eligible for assistance.

Bohon said his agency hired two additional staff members to process fuel assistance applications. At MaineHousing, Simpson said agency staff have been working extra hours to meet the demand.

''Our phones have been ringing off the hook,'' he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Staff Writer Dieter Bradbury can be reached at 791-6329 or at:

dbradbury@pressherald.com

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