MACHIAS, Maine — Susan Farley of the Washington Hancock Community Agency is on the front lines of what some days feels like a losing venture.
“I answer the phone when people call for help,” she said Tuesday. “I’m the one that often has to turn them away.”
This winter, Farley said, the volume of calls indicates that there is a crisis. Many agencies that provide fuel assistance already are out of money, fuel prices are 30 percent higher than last year, and it has been a cold and stormy winter. Families that may have had a savings account for backup a year ago are now running on empty.
“I take 100 to 200 calls a day,” Farley said.
Warming centers are being established at churches, community centers and Grange halls across the Down East region; neighbors are watching out for neighbors; and home sharing — two families living in one residence to cut expenses — is commonplace.
Still the need persists and expands.
Helen Vose of the Machias Food Pantry, which operates on donations, says the organization is out of money.
“Since Dec. 10, I’ve had 51 calls for fuel,” she said. “It is an overwhelming crisis. I’ve been doing this for 25 years, and I have never seen it this bad. I’m terrified.”
More than 20 representatives of area agencies, churches, towns and the county, as well as from each of Maine’s congressional delegation offices, gathered in Machias on Tuesday to try to obtain an overall picture of the fuel crisis in Washington County and to collaborate on solutions.
“We aren’t going to have enough money to heat every home, so what are we going to do?” Wendy Harrington of Maine Sea Coast Mission in Cherryfield asked those participating. “It is horrible to say no to people when they are crying on the other end of the phone.”
Jack Kelling is a housing rehabilitation specialist with Washington Hancock Community Agency.
“We ran out of money last October, and yet we have plenty of homeless,” he told the gathering. “They are living in vans, in campers, in condemned buildings. They have nowhere else to go.”
The participants said there is no typical person in need. Senior citizens tend to hang on longer before asking for help, but middle-class families also now are struggling along with single parents and the unemployed.
“More and more callers are moms whose grown children have moved in, and no one has a contingency plan,” Harrington said.
Joe Perkins, also of WHCA, said the need is tremendous.
“By the end of April, we will have taken 7,000 applications from families seeking help,” he said. “This a sad commentary. There is no economic recovery up here in Washington and Hancock counties.”
Perkins said the average assistance provided to families last year was $850 for the season. This year, that will be about $830. “But fuel is higher in cost this year, and this winter is colder,” he said. “We have hundreds of people asking for help that never asked before.”
Perkins said WHCA’s The Heating and Warmth, or THAW, program operates on donations and is on target to meet last year’s funding of $100,000.
“This enabled us to help 500 additional families,” Perkins said.
Machias Town Manager Chris Loughlin said applicants are being carefully screened, “but we are looking at survival here.”
Warming centers — places for people to visit for a few hours to get warm, socialize and sometimes get a meal — have been springing up across the county. They now are located in Jonesboro, Cherryfield and Milbridge and are contemplated in a dozen more places.
Murray Drisko said the Chandler River Warming Center in Jonesboro fed 38 people Monday, along with providing a warm place to be for two to three hours.
“We’re not fancy,” he said. “It is a simple place located in the town’s community center where people can get warm, eat and socialize. Most of our visitors are older people who live alone.”
Gini King of the Washington County Food and Fuel Alliance appealed to representatives from U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe and U.S. Rep. Michael Michaud.
“We need more dollars,” she said. “Washington County has a greater percentage of poor than any other county. The need is greater here.”
Some of the other suggestions made included:
– Investigate congregate and shared housing.
– Create and advertise more warming centers.
– Create a resource and reference directory to help those in need navigate the assistance system.
– Urge neighbors to watch out for their neighbors and step in when it is obvious that help is needed.
In the meantime, anyone who needs assistance can contact 2-1-1 Maine, a comprehensive statewide directory of available health and human services. To obtain information about resources available in any part of the state, call toll-free 211 or visit www.211maine.org. The 211 service is provided 24 hours a day seven days a week.