More than 120,000 people in Missouri depended on heating assistance programs last winter, but Community Action Agencies and the Missouri Public Service Commission fear they will run out of money to help this year.
The nationwide Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program helps people living below or just above the poverty level pay their heating bills.
Missouri received its second allotment in federal funds of $17.3 million for the heating assistance program at the end of 2003. If the continuing resolution that the funding is based on continues after January, the Missouri Department of Social Services will be able to distribute $38.7 million for the fiscal year 2004.
Ivan Eames of the Central Missouri Human Development Corp. is concerned that some people in mid-Missouri might not get the heating assistance they need. He works for one of Missouri’s 19 Community Action Agencies that accepts applications for heating assistance.
Eames’ agency distributes about $672,000 a year across eight mid-Missouri counties to support people through the Emergency Crisis Intervention Program, a component of LIHEAP.
It is especially designed to help people whose utilities are disconnected or about to be disconnected. He said this program served about 1,500 households in mid-Missouri last winter.
“There has been a tremendous increase in applications,” he said. “I don’t know if we’ll make it through the winter. If the demand keeps steady as it is, we’ll be in trouble.”
Eames said there is $100 million in emergency funds that the federal government could release, which some states have already requested.
Missouri Public Service Commission Chairman Steve Gaw said he is worried about the future of families in Missouri who depend on financial help to pay their heating bills.
“The state of the economy and higher energy prices have really placed a financial strain on a number of Missourians as well as others across the United States,” Gaw said.
“Kansas City and St. Louis agencies are seeing an approximate 50 percent increase in new households applying for LIHEAP assistance,” he said.
In Kansas City, 70 percent of the applicants have received a disconnect notice or have been already disconnected, Gaw said. He said he thinks it is “very possible” that some families who qualify for heating assistance won’t get the necessary support.
The Missouri Department of Social Services administers LIHEAP and contracts with Missouri’s Community Action Agencies to determine the eligibility of people who apply.
Jeanna Machon from the Family Support Division of the Missouri Department of Social Services oversees LIHEAP.
She said the regular energy assistance that takes place from October through March will provide all eligible applicants with support to pay for heating.
“Those who apply will get paid as long as they are eligible,” she said.
However, that won’t be definite for the Emergency Crisis Intervention Program. Because Community Action Agencies “see more applications and higher bills” for emergency situations, the agencies project that funding will run out by the end of February.
The energy assistance program operates under a continuing resolution that will expire at the end of January.
The U.S. Congress has not yet passed a bill that will guarantee funding and the re-authorization of the program.