LIHEAP makes program changes

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Up until 2004, utilities were forbidden to terminate residential heating in winter months without approval of the Public Utilities Commission. But as it has since its inception in 1982, the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program continued providing more help to vulnerable residents with its cash assistance and crisis grant program.

steady
STEADY REMINDER —Former Steeler great Franco Harris continues to remind Pittsburgh area residents to sign up for LIHEAP during winter heating months.

In November, LIHEAP began accepting applications from eligible families needing help paying their heating bills. It normally runs through March, but the deadline has been extended until April 2. The crisis grant program, which deals with households losing utility service, opened Jan. 4.

 

By staggering the opening dates for the two programs the state Department of Welfare, which administers LIHEAP, sought to reduce the need for crisis grants by getting households cash assistance first.

Eligibility for LIHEAP is limited to households with yearly incomes equal to no more than 150 percent of federal poverty guidelines. For a family of four, that amount is $33,075, and increases by $5,610 for each additional family member. Those qualified can receive a maximum Cash assistance of $1,000.

This differs from last year when, due to increased federal funding, income eligibility was based on 60 percent of the state’s median income, which for a family of four was $44,443. The total state’s overall LIHEAP appropriation is about $60 million less than last year.

The Crisis Grant program has the same income eligibility requirements and, since its inception, would make payments to utilities of up to $400 for residents who had received a termination notice.

But this year, the rules have changed. Now, to be eligible for a crisis grant, a resident’s service must be off—either due to a broken furnace, lack of fuel (kerosene or propane) or service termination due to non-payment.

“Right now we’re only writing (crisis grants) people for whose service is terminated,” said Allegheny County Department of Human Services spokesperson Sally Petrilli. “However, most of the people whose service is off have had it off for some time. They owe quite a bit of money and our $400 isn’t going to help that much.”

Petrilli said the staggered program start dates and the tighter eligibility guidelines have cut applications by roughly two-thirds from the first week last year. The county has also closed its Crisis Grant offices in Braddock and McKeesport due to the decline. Crisis applicants must use either the Downtown office or the Natrona Heights office.

For households that do not meet the 150 percent income threshold, but have incomes no greater than 200 percent of the poverty level, the Dollar Energy Fund    , a private donor-supported nonprofit, can make emergency payments as large as $500 to multiple utility providers per household.

“We can help, say a family of four making $41,000,” said spokesperson Erin O’Donnell. But we are the fund of last resort. People should contact LIHEAP and their utility companies first.”

Through the end of January, Dollar Energy is only assisting households whose service has been shut off. After that, the fund will also be open to those who have received a termination notice but still have service.

In addition to these services, utility providers have Customer Assistance Programs that allow qualified residents to pay reduced amounts for their monthly service.

For information on LIHEAP Crisis Grants in Allegheny County call 1-800-851-3838. The Dollar Energy Fund may be reached at 1-800-683-7036 or 412-431-2800. For information on gas and oil company CAP information, call Columbia Gas at 1-800-272-2714, Dominion People’s Gas at 1-800-400-9276, Equitable Gas at 1-800-644-8090, and TW Phillips at 1-866-276-4055.

To enroll in Duquesne Light’s CAP program, customers must visit a local office. The Allegheny County offices are located in Edgewood, McKeesport, McKees Rocks, Millvale, and in East Liberty, South Side and North Side in Pittsburgh.

Information on Allegheny Energy’s Assistance Program is available online at http://www.alleghenypower.com/CSC/Payment/PaymentOptions.asp.

(Send comments to cmorrow@newpittsburghcourier.com.)

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