ELLSWORTH, Maine — A bicounty heating assistance program has received a $20,000 donation that will enable it to continue to provide help to people in Washington and Hancock counties through the rest of the winter.
The Heating and Warmth fund, or THAW, a program of Washington Hancock Community Agency, received the donation recently from the Belvedere General Charitable Grantmaking Fund through Maine Community Foundation. The fund helps people who are having difficulty paying home energy bills.
The donation will help dozens of people who are struggling to make ends meet this winter, according to Joe Perkins, director of community and family services at WHCA.
“This demonstrates that people understand the need that exists,” Perkins said. “Tough economic times have made it exceedingly difficult for many people to take care of basic necessities.”
THAW was created in 2006 to help people pay their home energy bills, whether it was wood, kerosene, coal or oil, according to Ellen Hathaway, WHCA spokeswoman. In the last few years, however, more people are looking to the program for help with paying their electric bills as well, she said.
“That’s an important part of this,” Hathaway said. “If you have a pellet stove and no electricity, you’re cold.”
Although the program used to provide assistance during the colder months, the electricity component has made THAW a year-round program, Hathaway said. Last June, the agency received an average of 10 calls a day asking for help in paying electric bills.
Last year, the THAW fund helped 123 households with electric service reconnections, most of them during the summer months, according to Hathaway. So far this year, the fund has helped 231 households with heating assistance, 16 of which were electric service reconnection.
Hathaway noted that utilities are not allowed to turn off power during the winter months, but come April 15, they will begin to send out disconnect notices to customers who have not paid their bills.
“We expect to see a tsunami of requests when that happens,” she said.
In previous years, that need for help with electric bills was driven mainly by high oil prices as people put off paying some bills — including electric bills — so they could afford to pay the heat bills. This year, with heating oil prices relatively lower, it appears that the economic situation is driving the need for help this year.
“Although it seems like unemployment has hit a plateau, there are a lot of people who are still out of work and whose benefits have run out,” Hathaway said. “And even though they don’t have a job, they don’t always qualify for LIHEAP.”
WHCA will look initially to the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program and the Energy Crisis Intervention Program. When those benefits run out, or if people don’t qualify, she said, they turn to THAW.
Last year, the program provided assistance to about 300 households in the two counties. THAW is funded entirely from donations and annually provides about $100,000 in assistance.
For information on heating assistance or to apply for benefits, or to donate to THAW, call 664-2424 or 546-7544.