Currently in Archives. Click here to return to the new CU-CitizenAccess.Org website at any time.

More funds for utility assistance, but gaps still exist

CHAMPAIGN — A recent $3 million windfall could help residents who are struggling to pay utility bills this year.

The need for utility help is growing, yet there’s a gap among the few programs that offer assistance.

More than one in three Champaign County residents made 200 percent or less of the federal poverty level in 2008 – or $44,100 for a family of four, according to the U.S. Census Bureau estimates.

For these residents, the Champaign County Regional Planning Commission and Ameren’s Warm Neighbors Program are the local go-to places for help. But options are few for those who make more than the required income limits and still need utility assistance.

“I’ve seen more working class people calling that have jobs [but the] bills have gotten away from them,” said Annie Clay, program director for First Call for Help.

First Call for Help is a referral service that taps into a database of more than 600 programs and agencies that offer assistance.

Most assistance programs require that people demonstrate a hardship – be it an unexpected expense such as a car repair or death in the family.

But how much in assistance depends on family income.

The Champaign County Regional Planning Commission received an additional $3 million in federal funding for its LIHEAP program over the past few weeks, which doubled this year’s LIHEAP budget, said Darlene Kloeppel, social services director of the Champaign County Regional Planning Commission.

LIHEAP –the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program – is a state and federally funded program that offers a one-time payment to households who make less than 150 percent of the federal poverty level – or $33,075 a year for a family of four.

The amount of LIHEAP help depends on income, household size and type of utility.
The money is used for both the winter and cooling seasons. What doesn’t get spent, goes back to the federal LIHEAP pot for redistribution, Kloeppel said.

“So far, we’re able to help all people [who qualify] and are still able to take applications,” Kloeppel said.

During the last heating season, LIHEAP had served more than 6,000 families by May 31 – the end of the heating season. The program is on target to serve more than 7,000 families this heating season, Kloeppel said.

“We are ahead of last year’s applications at this time by about 500, and estimate that approximately 10 percent of our appointments are first-time applicants,” Kloeppel said in an e-mail.

Ameren’s Warm Neighbors Program lost about 20 percent of its funding this year as donations from Ameren customers – its largest funder – declined.The program provides matching payments to needy customers for their Ameren utility bills.

To help stretch the money this year, the program was limited to those who make between 150 and 200 percent of the federal poverty level – or between $33,075 to $44,100 for a family of four. Locally, the program is overseen by the Salvation Army.

Previously, it served anyone who made at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level.

“Our budget is not high enough to help everybody,” said Susan Sams, executive director of the Warm Neighbors Program. “We were trying to target the people who are working hard and trying to make ends meet.”

Those who make less than the required minimum amount have more options for help, Sams said.

Those restrictions have limited the number of people who qualify for utility help, said Jennifer Hill, social services director for the Salvation Army.

During past heating seasons, the program served hundreds of customers, she said.
Now, only six families have qualified for help this heating season.

“I think we’re seeing a population needing assistance that we’ve never seen before,” Hill said. “People [who’ve] never had to ask for help are asking.”

Those who make below the required 150 percent federal poverty level are referred to LIHEAP, she said.

There are utility assistance programs that do not have income requirements, but help can be minimal.

Occasionally, First Call for Help will use its own money to assist people in need but funds are limited and a person can receive help only once per calendar year, Clay said.

Those looking for utility assistance directly from First Call for Help have to prove a hardship, but there are no income limits.

While similar programs do exist – such as empty tomb inc., a Christian service and research organization – they are typically a last-resort stop.

“Funds are limited,” Clay said. “We can only do so much.”

¨ Copyright 2011 CU-CitizenAccess.