THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Cut in US heating aid will hurt, agency says

By Jessica Bartlett
Globe Correspondent / November 13, 2011

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As colder weather has already gripped the South Shore this season, federal budget cuts to heating-assistance programs are causing concern at Quincy Community Action Programs Inc. and other regional agencies.

According to the Quincy organization’s executive director, Beth Ann Strollo, funds for federal heating assistance nationwide have been cut to $2 billion from $5.1 billion last year. The new allotment will provide $77.6 million for the 22 agencies distributing the aid in Massachusetts, with QCAP receiving $1.45 million.

Under this year’s allocation, families that are at 100 percent of the poverty level in Quincy, Braintree, Weymouth, and Milton are eligible for $675 in heating oil assistance. By comparison, last year the figure was $1,050.

It’s a significant blow to the program, Strollo said.

“There’s not much we can do,’’ she said. “People are worried with households how they are going to get themselves through the winter. These will give the poorest households who don’t even have oil for the winter two-thirds of a tank.’’

As the benefits are available starting Nov. 1, many families won’t have enough money to heat themselves beyond Christmas, she said.

“We haven’t even hit the coldest part of the winter yet, and they will be out of their benefit level,’’ Strollo said.

The dismay has been echoed by some members of Congress.

“I, along with my colleagues in the state’s delegation, have been fighting for this funding since the beginning of the year,’’ US Representative William Keating, a Quincy Democrat, said in a release. “We had a freak October snowstorm, and our friends and neighbors who rely on fuel and heating assistance were looking towards a very cold winter.

“This infusion of federal funds will help change that, but more support for this important program is needed. I vow to continue to fight for heating assistance even as some short-sighted members of Congress try to cut it,’’ Keating said.

Strollo and staffers at QCAP, a nonprofit agency that helps low-income families in several area communities, have fingers crossed that the government will increase the appropriation, but there is no guarantee.

“The congressional delegation from Massachusetts is 100 percent behind increasing this appropriation level,’’ Strollo said. “Letters have been sent to the leadership and to the president, but it’s our understanding that there won’t be any adjustments made until Congress deals with the next [budget] resolution.’’ In the meantime, there is not much QCAP can do, she said.

Fund-raising for fuel assistance is very challenging, as the money goes very quickly, she said. Although staffers plan to refer people in need to other community programs that may be able to provide help, there won’t be enough assistance to meet the large demand.

“We refer people to any kind of emergency funds that are available, but typically those are small amounts. Someone might have a $10,000 fund to give out, but when you think how much it costs to heat homes - something like $10,000 can only help 25 households,’’ Strollo said.

If things don’t improve, the consequences of this could be dire. Some people may need to spend their rent money on oil, which could result in evictions. Additionally, people might not buy food or medicine that they need in order to stay warm, she said.

“The ripple effect from that is terrible,’’ Strollo said. “There are other choices people will make to stay warm.’’

Residents in need of help through the federal assistance program can call the state Department of Housing and Community Development’s “Heat Line’’ at 800-632-8175.

Jessica Bartlett can be e-mailed at jessica.may.bartlett@gmail.com.


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