After uncertainty, Massachusetts gets heating assistance funds

As reported by Brian Benson, Daily News Staff, and Gerry Tuoti, Wicked Local Newsbank Editor:

Despite threats that funding would be eliminated in President Donald Trump’s preliminary budget, the state’s home heating program will continue to keep low-income families warm this year, just as temperatures are beginning to drop.

“People can opt out of air conditioning in the New England area, but they can’t opt out of heating,” said Sue Crossley, executive director of Natick-based Family Promise Metrowest.

The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) provides critical help for people who are trying to become self-sufficient after being homeless and helps others avoid becoming homeless, according to Crossley, whose organization assists homeless people.

The program, known as LIHEAP, assists people who are choosing between critical expenses such as medicine and heating, said David Harrison, a division director at Framingham-based South Middlesex Opportunity Council, which runs the program in a variety of MetroWest and Milford area communities.

Federal funding for LIHEAP was uncertain for much of the year after Trump’s preliminary budget blueprint called for eliminating the program. The program, which provided states with more than $3.4 billion last year, is the primary source of funding for local fuel assistance programs. The programs provide financial assistance to help low-income families heat their homes in the winter. Last year, fuel assistance programs helped more than 190,000 households.

The LIHEAP funding was preserved when Congress passed a continuing budget resolution to fund government programs through Dec. 8. Under the resolution, LIHEAP was funded at the same level as last year. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released 90 percent of the LIHEAP funds to states on Nov. 1 and is expected to disburse the remaining funds later in the fiscal year.

“I’m concerned every year that it could get cut,” Harrison said. “We’re lucky this year.”

SMOC anticipates demand will be on par with last winter, when the organization helped roughly 5,700 households.

With rents increasing and housing scarce, even people who receive an increase in pay may continue to struggle, Harrison said.

Although LIHEAP was level-funded nationally, some states aren’t getting the same amount of funds as they did last year. Federal law requires that the funds be distributed to states according to a formula that incorporates factors including changes in average temperatures, the heating fuel sources used in each state, fuel prices and the number of low-income households. Those numbers can fluctuate year to year.

Massachusetts is getting less LIHEAP funding this year as a result of the formula. The state’s initial award was $122.9 million, 90 percent of $136 million. Last year, the state got a total of $146.2 million.

In Massachusetts, fuel assistance is available to households earning less than 60 percent of the state’s median income. That’s $34,380 for a household of one, or $66,115 for a family of four. The amount of financial assistance varies according to income. The maximum benefit available to people in the lowest income bracket is $1,100 for the season. The lowest benefit for people in the highest eligible income bracket is $120.

“It’s just a great program …to support families who are really trying to make it on their own,” Crossley said.

People seeking fuel assistance can apply Nov. 1 through April 30 with their local community action program.

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Get more information about heating help and find your agency here.