FUEL ASSISTANCE IS PERSONAL

As published on Item Live, powered by Daily News:

At Lynn Economic Opportunity (LEO), our work is about people and relationships. For us, fuel assistance is not transactional, it is personal.

Louis, age 94, and Marilyn, who is 86, live in a small lakeside cabin they purchased together in the 1960s. Louis, a veteran of the U.S. Navy, and Marilyn, a retired registered nurse, are career professionals living as most seniors do, on a fixed income.

Louis came to learn about LEO’s fuel assistance program through his local senior center. When he brought the news home to Marilyn about available assistance, she was less interested, “I am a proud person, and believe we should all be responsible for ourselves.”

But with rising fuel costs and all the other personal and household line items to budget, it became clear a bit of help would ease the couple’s burden. Today, they live simply, but comfortably and they don’t make dangerous choices with how and even if to heat their home. They also feel grateful for the support.

“Here’s what I know about fuel assistance; when the stack of bills comes, and you open one and it reads, ‘paid’ well that is a good feeling,” said Louis.

On Wednesday, Jan. 9, LEO stood on the State House steps with representatives from  23 other community action agencies that make up the Massachusetts Association for Community Action (MASSCAP) and asked Gov. Baker to add $30 million dollars to the Fiscal 2019 budget for fuel assistance.

Near-freezing and below-freezing temperatures, prolonged bitterly cold weather, and rising heating oil prices have combined to make staying warm this winter a nightmare for tens of thousands of vulnerable families, children and seniors, and veterans across the Commonwealth. In what has literally become a matter of life and death for some. We are asking the governor to avert a public health and safety crisis.

The federal fuel assistance resource or the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) helps families and individuals living in poverty across the state help residents afford heat and address other heating challenges. That resource over the past several years has dropped from $200 million to $145 million for Massachusetts.

Households that heat with delivered fuels such as home heating oil are particularly vulnerable. At close to three dollars per gallon for heating oil, the fuel assistance benefit will allow oil heat households to cover the cost of

1¾ tanks of oil — a real and dangerous problem when it takes 3-4 tanks to get a typical household through tough New England winters.

Most of the close to 48,000 oil heat households have exhausted their fuel assistance benefit and all will have exhausted it by the end of January, leaving them in a perilous position for the rest of the winter.

Vulnerable households faced with limited ability to cover heating costs may also engage in dangerous alternative heating approaches such as the improper use of space heaters and kitchen stoves and fireplaces leading to the threat of fire danger and carbon monoxide poisoning.

An immediate state allocation of $30 million would help oil heat households get past January and into February. Now is the time to act during a period in which the bitter cold shows no signs of letting up.

Over the past 12 years, the governor and the Legislature have provided supplemental fuel assistance resources in response to limited federal funding and grave weather conditions. Advocates have not promoted a state fuel assistance allocation when conditions have not warranted it (no ask in Fiscal 2016 and Fiscal 2017).

The fuel assistance program, administered by the state Department of Housing and Community Development, and carried out by community action agencies and other community groups, is set up to allow for new applicants throughout the heating season. Applications are up over last year at this time.

Households that have not accessed fuel assistance yet should do so as soon as possible.

The concern is for those households that have already accessed fuel assistance resources and because of the harsh weather have or will soon exhaust the benefit and not be able to cover heating costs for the rest of the long winter.

MASSCAP is joined by a diverse coalition of organization in its support for a state fuel assistance line item including: the American Association of Retired Persons, the Children’s Health Watch at the Boston Medical Center, Massachusetts Energy Marketers Association (formerly the Massachusetts Oil Heat Council), the National Consumer Law Center, and Mass Home Care.

A warm home is not a luxury, it is a necessity. Compassionate care for the most vulnerable in Lynn and surrounding cities (Lynnfield, Nahant, Saugus, Swampscott, and Wakefield) is our duty as citizens, neighbors, leaders and providers.

Stand with LEO.

Birgitta S. Damon is the CEO, Lynn Economic Opportunity, Inc. (LEO) and president of MASSCAP