AUGUSTA — Abigail Perry, director of the Augusta Food Bank, came to a recent meeting of the Emergency Heating Assistance Group because she didn’t know where else to turn for help.
Not help for her: rather, a client the food bank had delivered food to earlier in the week. The man was heating his mobile home by opening his oven, because he’d run out of oil and couldn’t afford to buy more, Perry said.
Unfortunately for that local man, and others like him, resources are tight, she said. The wait for help can be long.
And, just midway through February, many cold winter nights are still ahead.
“The needs are going unmet, and it’s not getting any better,” said Cecil Munson, a member of the Emergency Heating Assistance Group, and a city councilor in Augusta. “We caught a break last year — it was warm.”
However, while last year’s relatively warm winter did make it easier for those struggling to heat their homes, allowing some to burn only half as much heating fuel as they might have in a cold winter, it may actually make it harder for people who rely on federal heating assistance to stay warm this winter.
That’s because benefit amounts through the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program are based upon how much fuel participants used last winter, according to Kelly LaChance, LIHEAP program manager for Kennebec Valley Community Action Program, which distributes money in Kennebec, Somerset, Lincoln and Sagadahoc counties.
“People’s benefits are based on consumption, which is ridiculous because it’s based on last year, when it was so warm, some people only used half as much,” LaChance said Friday at a meeting of the group, which gets together regularly to discuss efforts to help people in need in the area heat their homes.
KVCAP, which recently closed its Augusta and Skowhegan offices a month earlier than normal to save administrative funds, has received 11,870 applications for federal heating assistance so far this year, which is roughly the same amount they had last year at this time.
With the other offices closed, fuel assistance appointments take place at KVCAP offices in Waterville.
LaChance said someone calling to get an appointment to request LIHEAP funds today would not get an appointment until April 18. She said sometimes the agency has 15 to 20 people waiting on the phone at the same time to speak to someone about heating assistance.
She said fuel prices are higher than they’ve been since the big spike in prices four years ago.
And LaChance said the Keep Me Warm Fund, which collects donated funds to help people in need heat their homes, has been depleted to a balance of less than $200 locally, and is also short of funds statewide.
Donna Staples, General Assistance coordinator for the town of Winthrop, said she is seeing numerous people she’s never seen before asking for help, because they’ve lost their jobs.
Residents who live in mobile homes and other housing where the oil tank is outside can have it even worse. Unless the tank is protected from the weather or other steps are taken, many have to purchase more-costly K-1 kerosene, because the cheaper No. 2 fuel oil could turn into a gel in cold temperatures and not flow to the furnace.
LaChance said that with K-1 costing more than $4 a gallon, if she has only $400 of fuel assistance to give someone in need, that wouldn’t even pay for 100 gallons of oil. Some, but not all, dealers charge a $75 delivery fee to deliver less than 100 gallons.
Keith Edwards — 621-5647