Md. requests for energy aid are taxing resources


It is bone-chillingly cold inside Ocie Lee Bare's tiny Smithsburg house.

The doors are shut tight and the windows are covered in plastic, but frigid air is pushing through the cracks and holes of her Western Maryland home. Although the heat pump is running, constantly, and about a third of her income goes to pay her electric bill, Bare has to hang blankets in the entryways of the living room to hold back drafts and throw three or four quilts on her bed at night.

But on a recent morning, even with experts predicting heating bills will rise as much as 50 percent this winter, the 70-year-old widowed mother of seven grown children was smiling.

That's because after she has spent two years on the waiting list for the federally funded Weatherization Assistance Program, help has arrived. And none too soon: With the expected rise in heating bills, programs that provide energy assistance have seen a jump in applications even as they struggle to assist those already on waiting lists. In Maryland, applications for energy assistance have risen 14 percent so far this winter.

"It's starting to warm in the house," Bare said as workers caulked windows, sealed cracks and blew insulation into the wall cavities and attic of her house. "I can feel it already. It feels good."

By the time they're finished - at a cost of about $6,000, but free to Bare - the improvements are expected to shave 40 percent off the $200 to $300 she pays in utility bills during the winter months and better protect her from nature's icy wrath.

This winter, though, advocates fear the need for energy assistance could outstrip resources.

"We're already seeing a spike in the need," says David Bradley, executive director of the National Community Action Foundation, a nonprofit organization that lobbies for low-income programs and works with the government to implement the weatherization program.

"There are thousands and thousand of people who are eligible for weatherization and there is no shortage of applicants, but we can't afford to do it all. People who do qualify are put on a waiting list for five years.

"It's not a good outlook," Bradley says. "It's not a happy outlook. ... Some of these agencies will exhaust their resources by the second week of January."

This year, even those who normally can handle their heating bills are feeling the pinch.

"We just had a husband and wife come in for help with their energy bill," says Richard P. Doran, executive director of the Baltimore County Community Assistance Network Inc., which oversees weatherization and other low-income programs. "Both of them are working and make $62,000 a year combined, but they have five kids and $140 a month in prescription bills. They're having a hard time."

Under normal circumstances, there are no programs to help middle-class residents, especially when community agencies across the country are having a hard time helping the most desperate. But some states have created temporary programs for those who normally wouldn't qualify for low-income aid, such as Maryland's Project Heat Up.

The project allows residents who make up to 175 percent of the federal poverty level to apply for help with their heating bills; normally, applicants can make no more than 150 percent of the poverty level. The project also provides additional funding for the state's weatherization program.

As anxiety builds over the coming heating bills, many consumers say they are just getting by as it is and won't be able to absorb the expected increases.

Michael Jones of Sparrows Point says his income is already spread thin. With three young children and a combined salary with his wife of less than $25,000 a year, the 29-year-old bar and deli manager has been struggling with his bills since buying a duplex three years ago. His monthly expenses include a $600 mortgage, $175 to insure two cars, $80 for telephone service and a $25 minimum credit card payment. That's not counting clothing or the $100 a week in groceries.

"Then I got a $700 heating bill every month for three months last year, and it just killed me," Jones says.

"It was already pretty tight, so I had to borrow money from my parents and get a secured loan against one of my cars," says Jones, who is expected to receive an energy assistance and weatherization grant this winter. "I used all the money I had to buy this house. I was worried about this winter so I applied for assistance a few months ago. I was really lucky it went through pretty quick."

Since its inception in 1976, the weatherization program has provided services to more than 5.3 million low-income families across the country. The premise was that while energy assistance can provide a temporary fix by paying these families' bills directly to their utility companies, weatherization offers a long-term solution by making their homes more energy-efficient, lowering heating and cooling bills by $200 to $250 annually.

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