Heating assistance funds in high demand as Mainers struggle through a cold winter

Heidi Halpin and Mary Jo Halpin have buried themselves in hand-knit blankets in order to stay warm this winter. They also knit hats and scarves, which they donate to local charities.
Heidi Halpin and Mary Jo Halpin have buried themselves in hand-knit blankets in order to stay warm this winter. They also knit hats and scarves, which they donate to local charities. Buy Photo
Posted Jan. 26, 2014, at 1:28 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 27, 2014, at 8:37 a.m.

HANCOCK, Maine — When asked how much time she spends thinking about staying warm, Heidi Halpin, 46, laughed.

“Pretty much all day,” she said, seated in her living room next to her mother, Mary Jo Halpin, 66.

The pair live together in Hancock. They both have diabetes and Heidi also has multiple sclerosis, so neither can work. As a result, they rely on fuel they receive from the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, a federal program that distributed $37.6 million to Maine to help heat the homes of those who can’t afford the bill.

The Halpin home received $389 worth of oil this year from the program, which allowed them to put about 132 gallons in their tank, they said. Usually they receive additional support from the Washington Hancock Community Agency’s heating assistance program, but earlier this month that fund ran dry.

As a result, the pair rely on a small electric heater that Mary Jo received from Friends in Action, a local service provider for the elderly, and they keep the thermostat down as low as they can bear.

A particularly cold winter has left local heating assistance funds stretched thin. These funds, like the one administered by the WHCA, rely on donations and are often used by households that don’t qualify for the federal benefit, or by those who do, but need more.

A fundraiser was held on Friday night to benefit the WHCA’s heating assistance fund, which will likely enable the group to provide help to other households.

The Franklin County-based Tri-Town Fund has distributed $28,000 to households in Livermore Falls, Livermore and Jay so far this winter, according to Judy Frost, a director at Western Maine Community Action. The fund has about $5,000 left, which she expects will be used up by mid-February.

“We’re further ahead this year,” Frost said. “We’ve seen more people, we’ve spent more money — probably a quarter more than what we’d spend last year at this point.”

The federal assistance fund, LIHEAP, also has been in high demand this year, according to MaineHousing spokesperson Deborah Turcotte. In addition to the annual one-time benefit that LIHEAP distributes to income eligible households, the program also administers additional emergency heating assistance to eligible recipients who have less than an eighth of a tank of fuel.

Turcotte said that 1,222 households had received this emergency fuel assistance as of Jan. 16, which is about three times the number that received the same benefit at this time last year.

“We’ve already heard of people who have used their LIHEAP benefit and their emergency assistance and they’re looking for some way to stay warm,” she said.

She said that though the program has helped more families this winter, it is not in danger of running out of funds. LIHEAP can only administer each benefit to a household once per year, so once the fuel runs out, those in need must find a different way to heat their homes.

“We suggest that they call 211 or go stay with family or friends,” Turcotte said. The United Way operates the 211 line and can give advice on where to find heating assistance.

The Halprin women said they have received LIHEAP, but they don’t know if they qualify for the emergency heating assistance program because their tank is underground and they can’t tell when there’s only an eighth left.

They’re anxious about whether the oil they have will last through the next few months, but they’ve found creative ways to keep busy and warm.

Both women were crocheting vigorously on Friday evening. They sat beside the electric heater, buried under colorful wool blankets that they had recently made.

Knit hats, gloves and scarves were at their feet and scattered about the apartment.

“Crocheting keeps us from going nuts,” Mary Joe said with a laugh. The women donate their finished products to the WHCA and the Emmaus House, a homeless shelter in Ellsworth.

Even after a cold week, they are optimistic.

“Every year, if we are careful, we can make it through,” Heidi said.

 

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