State grants to help Maryland's poor pay their heating bills will drop about one-third this winter, curbed by fewer dollars from Washington and a surge of new applicants, including a growing number of unemployed.
The average grant this winter will be about $240, down from $341 last year, said Sandra Brown, director of the Maryland Energy Assistance Program, which channeled federal aid to about 85,000 households last year -- out of about 93,000 applicants.
"We will have a lower benefit level so we can reach more people," said Ms. Brown, who expects 98,000 families to request aid and hopes to help about 93,000. Last year about 20 percent of recipients were unemployed, she said. The number could rise to 29 percent this winter.
The decreased grants have left many poor families wondering how they will make ends meet. Even the $341 in aid only paid for two-thirds to half of the average winter heating bill, depending on the type of fuel.
"When they keep cutting it back, it makes it harder," said Norita Simmons, 29, a single mother from Northwest Baltimore who raises her three children with $539 per month in government assistance and child support. Last year, Ms. Simmons received nearly $500 in fuel aid. This year, it will fall to $245.
"When I saw that I thought [it was] a mistake," she said.
Advocates for the poor are concerned by the decrease in funding. They fear that families strapped for cash may resort to dangerous methods to keep away the chill, such as heating their homes with their kitchen stoves.
Last year, about $1.6 billion was set aside for LIHEAP, the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, and Maryland received $29.3 million. This year, LIHEAP funding dropped to $1.5 billion, and the state's share will be about $24.1 million.
It could have been lower, said state officials, who note that the Bush administration requested a much lower total -- $875 million -- this year. But Congress fought for a higher amount.
One Republican senator, Warren B. Rudman of New Hampshire, called the $1.5 billion the "bare minimum" needed to serve the poor.
"We're pleased with the funding total for LIHEAP," said Michael J. Werner, deputy director of the state's Washington office. "It's better than taking a big cut."
But for the state's poor, there will still be big cuts.
"I was surprised" by the fuel aid reductions, said Eve Jones, 39, a single mother with three children. Last year she received $306, which paid about half her gas heating bill. This year the assistance will drop to $225.
She said she tries to contain the precious heat by placing plastic on the windows of her row house in her worn neighborhood of East Baltimore. During the day, she turns her thermostat down or off.
"I'll try to do it on my own; with my working it shouldn't be too bad," said Ms. Jones, a housekeeper at Johns Hopkins Hospital, where she grosses $249 a week. Her request for child support is still winding its way through the courts.
"I'm going to try to get a part-time job," she said.
The assistance grants, based on income levels set by the federal government, are paid directly to the fuel provider from October to March, Ms. Brown explained.
Baltimore residents received 42.4 percent of the state's grants last year, followed by Baltimore County with 7.6 percent and Prince George's County with 7 percent.
A large proportion of the Marylanders receiving grants for heat, 26 percent, are listed as elderly or handicapped. They are followed by 20 percent listed as unemployed and 18 percent on public welfare.
This winter there will be thousands of Marylanders like Parthenia Lewis, a 74-year-old retired Baltimore city worker who applied, but was turned down, for fuel assistance.
"They said I get too much money," recalled the widow, whose Social Security and pension payments bring in $876 each month. The monthly income cap for a household of one is $828.
Last winter she earned just under the monthly income cap and was able to get enough assistance for a full tank of fuel oil.
This year she will try to do without the help. "Do the best I can," she said.
Ms. Brown readily acknowledged that the cut in grants will place another burden on low-income people. "I don't think most of us have an answer," she said.
"Reality is how many dollars do you get and how many choices do you make with those dollars."
There is some hope, however, in the long-range forecast by the National Weather Service, which calls for at least a 60 percent chance of above-normal temperatures in the mid-Atlantic states
for November through January. The average temperature during the period for the Washington-Baltimore area is 40.8 degrees.
When poor families in the city run out of the federal energy assistance, they can turn to the Baltimore Fuel Fund, a private, non-profit organization similar to others operated in counties across the state.