Note: This story appears in the Saturday, March 10 newspaper on Page A1.
The proposed 2019 budget from President Donald Trump’s administration features $3 trillion in suggested cuts for the next decade along with increased military spending.
One basic assistance program under threat is a well-used and life-saving program that some residents in Southeast Ohio have relied upon: the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, known as HEAP.
Since 1981, HEAP has provided federal assistance for residents struggling to pay their energy bills. The program also provides weatherization and minor energy-related home repairs in some areas.
HEAP has two special components within it, namely the Winter Crisis Program and the Summer Crisis Program. These run within specific months of the year to provide emergency funds, though help is available in other months as well.
For Athens residents, HEAP and it’s components are provided through HAPCAP (Hocking-Athens-Perry Community Action). During the winter months, HEAP’s Winter Crisis Program offers assistance to residents who have less than 25 percent supply of fuel or less than a 10-day supply of firewood.
According to HAPCAP’s HEAP manager, Robin Hampton, HEAP serves nearly 5,000 people among all three counties, with over 1,200 in Athens County alone.
However, these are just the figures for applications that were accepted. Claire Gysegem, HAPCAP’s social media manager, noted that many applications are refused because an applicant does not meet the income requirements. Only applicants that earn 175 percent or less of the federal poverty level are accepted.
Gysegem relayed a story of one Hocking County woman who benefited from the program last December. The woman had used the last of her kerosene at home and turned to HAPCAP for help. Through the HEAP program, the woman received a kerosene delivery later that very day.
“Every year there is a story somewhere in the country about someone who has frozen to death in their home,” Gysegem said. “HEAP is the program that can prevent it. It’s life-saving for people. We see mothers come in with their babies and senior citizens who make the trip through the Hocking Hills in the snow.”
A year ago, Trump’s national budget called for cutting funding for several programs, including HEAP. The budget proposal stated HEAP “is a lower-impact program and is unable to demonstrate strong performance outcomes.” However, on Sept. 8, 2017, Trump signed a continuing resolution allowing the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to release $3 billion to the HEAP program for Fiscal Year 2018. This $3 billion amount is around 90 percent of what HEAP usually receives in funding.
Proponents of ending HEAP through the proposed 2019 budget are again claiming the program is unnecessary and is subject to fraud. Supporters of the program note the assistance usually goes to the utility provider or into home improvements, not directly to the customer.
According to Gysegem, there aren’t many other options for struggling residents when they reach the point that they are eligible for HEAP.
“Sometimes Job and Family Services is able to help,” she explained. “And the Salvation Army can also help with utilities. There are also some churches that are very giving … but I can’t think of any particular names I know.”
In Ohio’s Development Services Agency 2017 Annual Report, it was reported that almost 345,000 households were helped by HEAP in 2017, with the majority asking for winter help.
“Our appointments can be booked up for weeks in advance,” Gysegem said of the need for HEAP, “and I’ve heard of people waiting in their cars at 6:30 in the morning to make sure they can be seen during the walk-in hours.”
As lower temperatures drop, utility bills often rise — leading struggling residents to decide which priorities to pay for. According to data collected by the Feeding America Network of Food banks, more than two-thirds of households served during the winter months have to choose between food and utilities throughout the season.
In a related statistic, the Ohio Committee for Severe Weather Awareness has reported that 20 percent of cold-related deaths occur at home.
It isn’t just the utility assistance of HEAP that may be cut: HAPCAP also offers a weatherization program, which can help lower energy bills for eligible residents. One of HAPCAP’s goals is to help residents get back on their feet by promoting self-sufficiency, and the organization considers the weatherization program to be a major contributor to that goal.
“We connect people with the Electric Partnership Program to help reduce energy usage in their home, as well as the Home Weatherization Assistance Program,” Gysegem said. “The Home Weatherization Assistance Program also helps to reduce energy usage, leading to a 20-30 percent savings on energy bills over the course of a year.”