State provides warmth for low-income families

Households below the poverty level can get help with utility bills.
Thursday, November 13, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 7:50 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — Loretta Roarke prefers not to rely on others. When her grandson offered, “Grandma, I’m going to get you a wheelchair,” she shot back, “Oh no you ain’t!”

However, when it comes to paying her utilities, Roarke has little choice but to accept help. She relies on Central Missouri Counties’ Human Development Corporation to pay her light and gas bill.

“If it wasn’t for HDC, I’d be up a creek. I lose utilities, I lose my apartment,” Roarke said. She and her two grandsons live on her disability payments she gets because of the arthritis in her back.

As demand for natural gas rises and temperatures drop, Missouri’s Social Services Department and community agencies like the HDC will join efforts to provide warmth to low-income families across the state like the Roarkes.

Through the national Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, households that are below 125 percent of the poverty level can receive assistance to pay energy bills from late October through March. The Department of Social Services distributes applications through regional Community Action Agencies such as HDC.

The program runs in two components. One part helps needy families receive energy assistance, and the other helps pay overdue bills to get residents reconnected to their utilities.

According to Jeanna Machon, an assistant deputy director with social services, Missouri received more than $40 million from federal appropriations to provide for energy assistance last year. More than 6,000 Boone County households received energy help through the program last year, which was more than received help the year before.

As more residents have learned of the program, the numbers of applications have risen as well.

Roarke learned about the energy assistance program when a neighbor suggested she approach the HDC to ask them for help.

“They paid it, and it surprised me,” Roarke said. “I’d never had any help, so I didn’t know what I could get.”

David Thayer, executive director of central Missouri’s HDC, said that Missouri recipients receive a one-time average amount of $200 toward their energy costs, depending on region and fuel type of the resident. Those funds may have to stretch further this year. AmerenUE, a leading utilities company in central Missouri, is seeking to raise the natural gas rate an average of $16 a month per customer.

Roarke shook her head at the thought. “We can’t pay it now — What are we supposed to do?”

Thayer expressed hope and concern about the upcoming winter.

“The state was concerned with the potential spike in natural gas, so there were many meetings around the state to alert people,” he said. “It appears right now that they may not go up as much as was feared, so the impact may not be quite as bad. It puts a pinch on everyone because you don’t really stop using (the utilities). It gets cold and you’ve got to keep warm.”

Machon said that Congress is planning to finalize its plans for state appropriations this week, so she is uncertain whether Missouri will receive more or less money than last year.

Applications became available on Oct. 20 and will be provided until March 31, unless funds are used up before then.

“It is possible to run out of money on this program, so the longer you can go before you get into real severe weather, the more likely you are to be able to help folks,” Thayer said.

Last year, Missouri had fewer than five cold-related deaths, the lowest number in more than 20 years.

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