Local programs fill void in federal heating assistance

ADDISON COUNTY — The Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity (CVOEO) is doing its best to keep Vermonters warm this winter. But with slashes to federal funding, greater operating expenses and increased demand for fuel assistance, the administer of the federal Low Income Heating Assistance Program (LIHEAP) is looking for help.
That’s where local organizations like Middlebury’s Helping Overcome Poverty’s Effects (HOPE), the Bristol Energy Committee and the Vermont Sustainable Heating Initiative come in. These organizations help LIHEAP-eligible families extend their funds and fill in the financial gaps for those families who aren’t eligible for LIHEAP.
Vermont’s LIHEAP funding from Washington was cut from $26 million last year to $19.5 million this year. According to Vicki Fletcher, crisis fuel and warmth coordinator for CVOEO, the only funding that’ll continue pumping heat into those homes that need it most this winter is the $6.1 million in state aid — allocated by Gov. Peter Shumlin and the Legislature. 
“If we didn’t get that extra $6.1 million, I think we’d be done at the end of the week,” said Fletcher. “We certainly would not be open until the end of the season.”
But even with those funds, Fletcher said the heating program’s operating expenses are up $66,000 from last year and the number of households served across all of CVOEO’s territory — Addison, Franklin, Chittenden and Grand Isle counties — is up 24 percent to 3,918 homes. In Addison County, alone, the number of households receiving CVOEO assistance has grown 8.5 percent to 344 households. In addition to federal funds, CVOEO heating assistance comes from utilities and private entities, but Fletcher said those donations have dropped about $6,500 from last year.
“We’ve been so worried in the earlier part of the year about funding, said Fletcher. “We’ve been paying the bare minimum we can pay to meet someone’s crisis.”
U.S. Rep. Peter Welch is part of a bipartisan group pushing to fully fund the 2013 LIHEAP budget. But while he tries to obtain more federal heating assistance this year, Vermont will have to fend for itself.
Since CVOEO is stretched thin this year, Fletcher often refers low-income families looking for fuel assistance to churches, banks and community-based organizations, like Helping Overcome Poverty’s Effects. Last year, HOPE assisted 56 Addison County families with heat and electricity and another 24 with emergency firewood.
“If people need it, we do it,” said HOPE Executive Director Jeanne Montross, who has noticed local residents are running out of LIHEAP assistance much quicker this year, despite the mild temperatures.
“When people don’t have enough money to pay for all of their necessities, something gives way,” she said. “Right now fuel prices are pretty high and people are having a difficult time making ends meet. So we want to help them. We don’t want to see people without heating fuel because not only can it cause damage to their home, but there’s a risk of them freezing to death.”
HOPE serves homeowners with incomes up to 185 percent of the federal poverty line. That’s an annual income of $20,140 for a single-person household, $27,213 for a two-person household and $41,347 for a four-person household. Homeowners who don’t qualify for LIHEAP funding can also apply for HOPE assistance. The nonprofit provides a range of fuel assistance options and runs on local donations. To find out more about HOPE, contact 388-3608.
The Bristol Energy Committee’s fuel assistance program is one example of a community combining resources to help neighbors in need.
When a Bristol family’s furnace died last winter, they weren’t sure where to turn. Their income was too high for LIHEAP funding, but they didn’t have the money to buy a new furnace. They did, however, have an old wood stove.
The family contacted Bob Donnis, coordinator of the Bristol fuel program. He then created posters and sent out Internet posts to gather wood for the unnamed family. Three to four cords of wood were donated to the family.
“If the need is there, I’ll put out a message (saying we) need wood or kerosene or whatever,” said Donnis. “And then I’ll ask if anyone has any funds to help buy this family fuel.”
Although last year the program just offered cordwood, Donnis said, this year those Bristol townspeople in need will have the option of propane, kerosene, wood pellets and other fuels.
“Our objective is to just keep families warm until other services can kick in,” said Donnis, who can be reached at 453-6690.
Since 2008, the Vermont Sustainable Heating Initiative, or VSHI, has funded and helped install 18 wood pellet stoves in low-income homes across Addison and Washington counties. The organization has two stoves on deck for installation this month and has provided low-income Vermonters with tons of pellets over the past four years.
Operated by Mount Abraham Union High School physics teacher Tom Tailer, the nonprofit is driven by student volunteers and aims to help low-income families extend LIHEAP funding by providing wood them with pellet stoves and pellets.
“We want to move our neighbors in the greatest need off of the most expensive fuels to affordable, sustainable fuels that are safer,” said Tailer, who urges low-income families, interested donors and eager volunteers to contact him at 802-879-9486.
“My personal goal is to get 1,000 pellet stoves installed in low-income homes in the next two years,” he said. “That would be a real and meaningful change.”
Reporter Andrew Stein is at [email protected].

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