In this Jan. 2, 2008, file photo, heating oil is delivered to a home in Barre, Vermont. Credit: Toby Talbot / AP

With so much economic upheaval caused by the pandemic, community organizations in Maine are reporting that they have received far more applications for heating assistance this winter. And barriers raised by the pandemic have made it harder for applicants.

Shawn Yardley, CEO of Lewiston-based Community Concepts, said pride has long been a factor that’s stopped families from applying for heating assistance. But he said because of the economic situation so many families across the state are now facing, his organization has already received more than 6,300 applications this year — an increase of about 1,000 from last year.

“Just because of the economic insecurity that many people are feeling. Especially those that are living more at the margins, and have relied on heating assistance in the past. Or maybe never had to, and wanted to get in early, for fear of how the program worked, and to make sure they were able to get some help,” he said.

The Maine State Housing Authority, meanwhile, reports that applications for assistance are up nearly 3 percent statewide, compared with this time last year.

In Presque Isle, Erin Benson with the Aroostook County Action Program said her agency is on pace to receive significantly more applications for the program — but she viewed that increase as a good thing. Benson said it means that her agency is reaching a lot more people who may not have sought out assistance in the past.

“The numbers tell us there are far more people in poverty that are not accessing this benefit that could. So we certainly want to help anybody who has been hit by this pandemic. But we also want to help people who just qualify for the benefit itself,” she said.

Because of limits on in-person visits, community agencies have also had to rethink how they help their clients apply for assistance — especially in rural areas. Kennebec Valley Community Action Program officials said they have hired five more staff members this year to help people apply over the phone.

And in Aroostook County, Benson said her agency has been forced to get creative to assist clients who have limited access to broadband or digital devices.

“It’s been an interesting time to try and triage with someone about, ‘Well, do you have a smartphone? Can you take a picture of [the paperwork]? And email it to me? Do you see the little square there and push that?’ Trying to help people get us the paperwork has been a struggle at a time when those places that are typically open, that help people with those kinds of things — libraries, and town offices, those sorts of things — it’s been a struggle for clients,” she said.

In western Maine, Yardley said he worries that even with that extra outreach, the additional barriers may prevent people from receiving the help they need. To increase participation in the program, Yardley said his organization has been encouraging people to apply for heating assistance at the same time that they apply for other state benefits, such as the rental relief program.

“So when we’re working with them at that, if we believe them to be eligible for LIHEAP, we encourage them to apply,” he said.

Applications for heating assistance will be accepted through July, and emergency assistance is available through April.

This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.