ELLSWORTH, Maine — It’s cold and getting colder.
That’s a harsh reality not lost on those who don’t have the cash needed to buy heating oil.
With 80 percent of homes in Down East Maine relying on kerosene or No. 2 fuel oil for heat, and with fuel oil prices nearing $4 a gallon, it’s a perfect storm of need for low-income households facing a tough winter.
“I’ve had a woman in her 80s who is on a fixed income looking for help and a 19-year-old single mom with a baby, wondering how they will stay warm,” said Sister Lucille MacDonald, who oversees the Emmaus Homeless Shelter in Ellsworth. “The need extends across all ages.”
MacDonald said Monday eight area churches are contributing to the shelter’s discretionary fund that covers the costs of everything from electricity, rent and fuel assistance for those who need help.
“It’s early into the winter, and it’s been warm, but we are still seeing demand a little higher than it was a year ago,” MacDonald said. “And, in terms of the shelter, there’s a waiting list.”
Statewide, the amount of federal funding for home heating subsidies is about the same this year as last year, when funds for Maine were cut by $5 million, leaving $38.5 million for allocation to those eligible. What’s not the same, says Maine State Housing Authority spokeswoman Deborah Turcotte, is the price of fuel, which is higher than last year.
“There’s been a slight uptick [in applications for assistance] from last year,” she said Thursday. There were 22,000 applications for assistance at this time last year and 18,000 were approved. Turcotte said applications are up about 1,000 this year with the average benefit at about $556. Benefits range from $1,646 to $144, depending on income, she added.
Kenneth Fletcher, the director of Gov. Paul LePage’s energy office, said Thursday that weatherization and conversion of electrically heated homes to more efficient systems such as heat pumps will help improve efficiency and reduce energy costs.
Fletcher said he can only hope that this winter is as mild as last winter, which helped to buffer the cutback in heating assistance funding.
“Trying to make Maine’s old housing stock energy efficient is a huge challenge,” Fletcher said. “We also need this heating assistance funding released at the beginning of the heating season, not in March.”
Susan Farley, an Ellsworth-based family assistance advocate with the Washington Hancock Community Agency, says she’s overwhelmed by requests for fuel assistance.
“We’ve had 2,400 applicants and have 2,522 more appointments for applications scheduled that now extends into March,” she said. “And, at the same time, our agency has seen cutbacks, which mean that we have fewer people to service more people who need help.”
Farley said her agency has already blown through $31,000 in emergency fund private donations that were contributed since the first of October. With Maine’s population being the oldest in the nation, and Washington County’s population being the oldest among the 16 counties in Maine, Farley said many of those in need of fuel assistance are homebound elderly.
“These are people who never thought they would have to ask for help,” she said. “These are people who, as a matter of pride, don’t want to ask for help, but they just don’t know where else to go.
“I’m working with an 82-year-old couple who have broken windows in their trailer, but are living on a fixed income, so haven’t had them fixed,” Farley said. “When they do get fuel assistance, all that heat will, quite literally, go out the window. These are people with severe medical conditions, and they sit there and shiver. I’m also working with some people from East Machias, who last week had lightning strike their trailer, which melted their electrical box. These are people living on $600 a month, but they scrounged enough to get the box replaced. But, when they threw the switch, there was a power surge that burned out their well pump. So now they have no water.”
Farley said her phone “never stops ringing” as she fields calls from those seeking assistance.
“People are desperate, and, as it gets colder, it will only get worse,” she said.
MacDonald agrees. She said Monday that the Emmaus Shelter has launched an “adopt a family” program designed to link “haves” with “have-nots” who need to endure the winter.
MacDonald can be reached at 667-3962. Farley can be reached at 664-2424.
A previous version of this story quoted Maine State Housing Authority spokeswoman Deborah Turcotte saying there were 22,000 applications for assistance last year. Turcotte said there were 22,0000 applications at this time last year. The number of households applying for benefits this year has increased from last year by about 1,000.