Heating Assistance Demand Expected to Increase


WASHINGTON (Nov. 17,2008)—Charlie Jordan of New Carrollton applied for energy assistance for the first time Thursday at the Prince George's County's Department of Social Services.

Recently, Washington Gas Energy Services sent Jordan, 70, a letter telling her to seek assistance in paying her electric bills because she's been only able to pay a portion of the bill.

Last winter, demand for heating assistance among low-income families was high. This year, the demand is expected to increase, state officials said.

The nation's economic meltdown—increased foreclosure and unemployment rates, and high gas and food prices—has increased the number of families seeking financial assistance.

The number of applications for energy assistance increased this year from 93,000 in fiscal year 2007 to 100,000 in 2008, said Ralph Markus, director of Maryland Office of Home Energy Programs.

"It's a lot of people that have, particularly the elderly, who have traditionally paid their bills on time and now are struggling to pay those bills," Markus said.

The Maryland Office of Home Energy Programs, which is under the state Department of Human Resources, expects considerably more than 100,000 applications for fiscal year 2009, Markus said.

Markus is in charge of the Maryland Energy Assistance Program, one of several that help low-income Maryland families pay for their home energy needs. The MEAP program in particular provides financial assistance with home heating bills.

Even though temperatures have remained in the upper 60s, the agency has already experienced a 9 percent increase in the number of applications as of Oct. 31, said Markus.

From July to October, 62,813 applications were submitted across the state. In 2007, 57,611 applications were submitted during the same period, Markus said.

Residents eligible for MEAP might also be eligible for the Electric Universal Service Program, a statewide program which provides monetary assistance for low-income families' electric bills, according to the Office of Home Energy Programs' Web site.

A Public Service Commission 2007 annual report shows 99,989 Marylanders received MEAP funding, with $29.7 million spent on utilities and $12.3 million used for fuels such as oil and coal.

For 2008, the Electric Universal Service Program received $37 million in funding, and the commission recommended that its funding be increased to $76.1 million for 2009. They ended up with $57.7 million.

The commission is also responsible for providing funding recommendations for the Weatherization Assistance Program, which is run by the Department of Housing and Community Development, which received $1 million in funding for 2008.

The Office of Home Energy Programs gave $750,000 to the weatherization program last year for furnace repair and replacement and will give the same amount for fiscal year 2009. The program serves about 2,000 households, Markus said.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Administration of Children and Families announced in October that the agency will give $5.1 billion to its Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program.

Maryland netted $35,913,046 in LIHEAP funding for fiscal year 2008. That number has increased to $101,296,011 for fiscal year 2009.

LIHEAP funding finances the state's MEAP program.

Markus said Thursday his office has already received the increased LIHEAP funds for the new fiscal year.

Most households received an average of $450 in MEAP funding, but the amount and the number of recipients are expected to increase, Markus said.

One of the misconceptions about citizens in need of energy assistance is that they do not work or are not self-sufficient. However, about a third of applicants work, with another third elderly and/or disabled, Markus said.

Joyce Pickeral of District Heights is one of the working Marylanders who went to the Landover OHEP office. Pickeral, 39, is a food service worker for the National Institutes of Health who needed energy assistance for oil. The mother and grandmother said she makes good money, but estimates that her electric bills have risen to $60 or $70 since last year, and oil has gone up from $319 to $350.

"Everything's just went up so high," Pickeral said.

Most of the applicants' responses to their financial troubles are that of concern, Markus said.

"I think people are just worried that it's such a struggle to pay the bills, because, particularly electric prices have gone up so much in the last couple of years," said Markus.

It is best to apply as early as possible, so that when a heating crisis occurs, help would be readily available.

Local OHEP facilities are located in all 23 counties and Baltimore City. Residents can apply either online or in person.

Capital News Service contributed to this report.

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