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Poor get less help with fuel this year

With federal cuts, programs run dry

By Michele Morgan Bolton
Globe Correspondent / December 1, 2011
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Hit by steep cuts in federal funds, fuel assistance programs are expected to run out locally in mid-December, casting the region’s advocates for the needy into a panic: As temperatures drop and heating oil prices rise, how will their clients stay warm?

Some of them, like Kevin Clapp of Brockton, are already desperate.

Retired from the MBTA on a small disability pension, Clapp cannot afford to buy much oil. He heats his Brookville Avenue home with the oven and four space heaters, and wraps himself in an electric blanket to ward off the chill. At night, he sleeps on an air mattress in the kitchen.

“I don’t cook with the oven, I leave the door open,’’ he said. “It’s sad I have to live like this. I do a lot of praying.’’

The $5 billion federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program has been slashed this year to less than $2 billion. For Massachusetts, that translates to a reduction of 58 percent, from $183 million to about $77 million.

The funds are distributed by the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development, which determines a recipient’s eligibility for aid by his or her base income and household size.

Following the federal cuts, recipients who previously received $1,090 for home heating oil now qualify for $675 worth of fuel, which advocates like Jon Carlson compare at today’s prices to about a half a tank of oil. People who received the maximum benefit of $790 for natural gas or electric heating assistance last year will have to make do with $285 this time around, he said.

“What it means is the poorest of the poor have no chance of staying warm,’’ said Carlson, who is executive director of Self Help Inc., a nonprofit agency based in Brockton that serves 30 communities from Canton and Dedham to Randolph and Whitman. It is one of 22 agencies statewide that distributes the aid.

In fiscal 2010, Self Help received more than $14 million; last year it got about $13.8 million, and this year the allocation was $5.8 million, Carlson said.

As just one example of widespread need, he said, Brockton has more than 5,000 eligible households. He and a number of colleagues in other nonprofits are talking with state lawmakers to try and find a local solution to the funding shortfall.

“If more funds aren’t awarded, it could have a catastrophic impact on some of our clients,’’ Carlson said. “Heat is a basic requirement, and people will do almost anything to stay warm. There could be a tragedy that might have been avoided if something doesn’t change.’’

The cuts were included in the fiscal 2012 federal budget to help shrink the national deficit. A record 8.8 million US homes, however, rely on fuel assistance, and the reduced funding means more than 3 million eligible homes will be dropped from the program, according to the New England Fuel Institute.

Representative Stephen Lynch, a South Boston Democrat, said he told House leadership in November that the federal fuel assistance program is critical and must be level-funded.

“Going forward, I will continue to fight on behalf of families and seniors who rely on fuel assistance to heat their homes,’’ Lynch said.

Janice Fitzgerald, who heads the Brockton Council on Aging, said she has heard more heartbreaking stories about people in need this year than ever, including from an 81-year-old man who hadn’t had any fuel for a week. There are many others, she said.

“This is not a high-income city by any means,’’ Fitzgerald said. “They tell me about wearing their winter coats to sleep so they can save fuel to heat water. They are not taking medications, or taking half,’’ to be able to afford all their bills, she said.

“Every time a door opens or a phone rings, I know it is someone in need,’’ she said. “So what’s going to happen in December? That’s what I’m bracing for.’’

In Plymouth, people needing help with heat are lined up by 8 a.m., said Pat Daly, executive director of the South Shore Community Action Council.

“I see young men in their 30s sitting in the waiting room,’’ Daly said. “It used to be single mothers with children, or seniors and the disabled, but now it’s everyone.’’

Last year, the council received applications from 15,000 households and was able to provide benefits to 12,500 of them, she said. The council will distribute $4.3 million in funds this year, down from $9.2 million last year.

Lisa Spencer, the group’s director of energy and emergency programs, said the only solution to the heating assistance debacle is to get more funding. “It’s a pretty big concern,’’ she said.

Groups like the Lions, Elks, and Rotarians usually make up for the slack, but with the economy limping along many such organizations lack the funds.

That’s why the town of Norton, for example, has opted to take matters into its own hands, said its general manager, Michael Yunits. The town has opened the Norton Energy Fund and will award 100 gallons of oil to eligible applicants.

Applications will be processed by the selectmen’s office, Yunits said. The fund is operated by volunteers and the St. Vincent De Paul Society, a Catholic charitable group.

“It’s amazing how people volunteer to help each other in this town,’’ said Yunits, on the job since the spring. “We hope other towns step up and do the same thing.’’

Yunits and others acknowledge that 100 gallons isn’t a lot of oil, but it might be enough to keep the heat on until something else can be figured out.

“We’ll see who the needy are and then get help for them,’’ he said.

Michele Morgan Bolton can be reached at michelebolton@live.com.

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