Subtracting fuel from the fire: Heating assistance fund cut by estimated $8M across WNC

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On Nov. 1, the first day Eblen Charities in Asheville opened its heating assistance program for the winter, there were so many people in line that an hour after interviews began, Eblen worker Philippe Rosse told late arrivals to come back the next day. Photo by Paul Clark.

I didn’t realize how cold it was until I stepped out of my warm car into the parking lot outside Eblen Charities at Westgate Shopping Center in Asheville. A silvery, pre-dawn frost lay on the grass between cars parked by people hoping that Eblen would help them with their heating bills this winter by providing oil, natural gas or money for electricity. It was the first day of November.

Standing outside the door to the Eblen offices was 48-year-old Willie Montville. Montville lives with her 27-year-old daughter and 5-year-old grandson in a $412-a-month mobile home in Candler in a place “so far out, it ain’t on the GPS.” Through the glass door, I could see a hallway packed with people. There were well over 200 people inside waiting to be interviewed.

Montville and her daughter heat their Buncombe County home with one space heater, she said, but buying fuel to keep it going will cost a fortune. Besides, the little heater heats only so much. “Sometimes I have to open the oven, it’s so cold,” she said.

Cuts to heating assistance estimated at $8 million in WNC

No doubt, it’s cold out there.

President Barack Obama has suggested cutting funding for the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program from an authorized $5.1 billion to $2.57 billion for this fiscal year. Figures vary on what this would mean to North Carolina, but, like other states, it is expecting its share of LIHEAP money to be significantly less and is cutting back on allocations counties use to help low-income households pay home heating and cooling bills.

In late October, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released $1.7 billion into the program.

But this fiscal year, North Carolina believes it will receive between $60 million and $77 million to serve an estimated 165,000 households, according to Erica Jennings, a program consultant in the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. That’s much less than the $114 million it received in LIHEAP money in fiscal year 2011, when it served 487,449 households, she said.

If Congress approves the Obama cuts (it hasn’t voted on the measure), Western North Carolina’s 17 counties will receive $8 million less in LIHEAP funding, according to the Campaign for Home Energy Assistance, a program by the LIHEAP Action Center, a home energy assistance advocacy organization. The losses would come at a bad time – the state has no backup plan for replacing the money. And lots of people out there need help.

According to data released this week from the U.S. Census Bureau, 17.4 percent of North Carolinians lived below the poverty level in 2010. That’s up from 16.2 in 2009, making about 1.5 million people across the state living in poverty. [See Carolina Public Press’ report on poverty across Western North Carolina, including a breakdown of county-by-county numbers for all ages and for children under 18 living in poverty.]

As of October, 10.4 percent of workers were unemployed. The foreclosure rate in Haywood County, currently the hardest-hit county in Western North Carolina for foreclosures, according to the real estate-tracking company RealtyTrac, was one in 1,026 housing units in October, compared with one in 1,449 housing units for North Carolina as a whole.

“There will be a lot more demand (for heating assistance this year) than there will be supply,” said Herb Sherlin, a Department of Social Services adult services caseworker in Clay County. “You’ll still have the same number of people who are used to getting (the assistance), but we’ll be able to serve a lot less people because we’ve got a lot less money.”

Last fiscal year, Clay County helped 748 households with $200,251, Sherlin said. This fiscal year, it expects to help 50 households with about $15,000, he said.

Because there’s so much less federal money, the state made changes. Previously, anyone who received food stamps was automatically approved for heating assistance. This year, they have to apply like everyone else. Local social service departments accept applications.

Also new this year is who can apply when. Low-income households with a disabled member or in which all occupants are 60 years or older may apply Dec. 1 through Jan. 31. Other low-income residents may apply Feb. 1 thorugh March 31, if there’s any money left.

Sherlin doesn’t expect there will be.

“It will all get gone during that (first) time period, I have no doubt,” he said. “So the working poor, (who are) raising kids and needing help, they won’t get the LIHEAP money this year.”

Bundling up

Within four days of opening its heating assistance program on Nov. 1, the day this photo was taken, Eblen Charities had already seen more than 1,000 families. Cuts to the program mean that a fraction of those served in last year will get help keeping warm this year. Photo by Paul Clark.

Wearing a sweater not up to the task of keeping her warm in the pre-dawn cold, Montville said she’d arrived at 3:20 a.m. to get in line at Eblen Charities. It was 28 degrees then, she said and there were 10 people ahead of her. One woman told her she’d been there since 7:30 p.m. the previous evening – a statement I heard from other people as well. At about 4 a.m., the Eblen staff opened the doors to get people out of the cold and in for some donated breakfast. “Thank goodness,” Montville said.

Her 250-gallon oil tank was empty and with an income of $664 a month in disability benefits, she didn’t have the money to fill it. Though she and her daughter split the bills, it’s hard, she said. “It’s always hard for me,” she said with a backward glance inside, hoping she’d be called for an interview soon.

Within four days of opening its heating assistance program on Nov. 1, Eblen had already seen more than 1,000 families, said Bill Murdock, the charities’ executive director. By Nov. 29 the agency had interviewed 1,465.

Eblen is just one county organization to distribute LIHEAP heating assistance money, with its portion reaching about $500,000, Murdock estimated. The Buncombe County Department of Social Services also distributes the funding through Asheville Buncombe Community Christian Ministry, Swannanoa Valley Christian Ministry and Community Action Opportunities.

But the agency has far less funds available. In fiscal year 2011, it helped 15,106 households with $3,376,433 in LIHEAP funds, said Tracie Franklin, lead worker in Buncombe County Department of Social Service’s economic services division. This fiscal year, it expects to help 5,367 households with close to $1.6 million, she said.

That’s a loss of about $1.8 million in one year in Buncombe County alone.

“In the past, when we ran out (of money), they (The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services) would send us a little more,” she said. “But this time, they’re saying they won’t, unless there’s a disaster.”

Losses are significant elsewhere in Western North Carolina. The Campaign for Home Energy Assistance estimates that, compared to fiscal year 2010:

  • Avery County will receive $176,483 less.
  • Cherokee County will receive $386,998 less.
  • Graham County will receive $163,572 less.
  • Haywood County will receive $676,261 less.
  • Henderson County will receive $593,998 less.
  • Jackson County will receive $354,754 less.
  • Macon County will receive $375,752 less.
  • Madison County will receive $440,270 less.
  • McDowell County will receive $317,572 less.
  • Mitchell County will receive $230,351 less.
  • Polk County will receive $148,110 less.
  • Rutherford County will receive $601,029 less.
  • Swain County will receive $409,073 less.
  • Transylvania County will receive $342,074 less.
  • Yancey County will receive $245,573 less.

Murdock believes that requests for heating assistance in Buncombe County this winter will be 20 percent higher than last winter, the result of layoffs and general financial decline.

“We’re seeing a lot of folks we’ve never seen before,” he said. “They’ve never been to any agency before. They’re lost their job, or there’s been an illness in the family, and all of a sudden, it’s more than they can handle financially.

“They’re just everyday folks, across the board,” he said. “There isn’t one stereotypical family that we’re seeing. The economy is affecting everybody right now. But we are seeing more people that have been laid off then we’ve seen in the past.” That includes many white-collar workers, and it certainly includes more blue-collar workers, he said. “If we don’t do something, they’ll be the ones that will be cold or not have the electricity on.”

Hard to heat

That could include Lou Ellen Hensley, who in the early morning Nov. 1 was waiting at Eblen Charities to be interviewed. Hensley, a Woodfin resident, was sitting at the end of the crowded hallway with her sister, Barbara Black.

“I live in a big two-story house with big ceilings. You can imagine how hard it is to heat,” she said. Hensley, 70, lives in Martel Village, a community of mill houses that textile manufacturer Martel Mills built around 1900. There’s no insulation in her century-old house. In winter, she wears layers of clothes to stay warm. She lives on what she gets from Social Security.

“You get to pinching pennies everywhere you turn,” she said, smiling sweetly and patiently waiting her turn. “I do without a lot of stuff.”

If she got help with her heat, “I’d have more to eat,” she said.

“You do without a lot of little necessities, like clothes,” Black said. “How many years you worn that?” she asked, fingering the sweat suit her sister had on.

“A long time,” Hensley said.

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Paul Clark

Paul Clark is a contributing reporter for Carolina Public Press. Contact him at paulgclark@charter.net.

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