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When crisis strikes, WARMTH steps in

When crisis strikes, WARMTH steps in

Burlington Free Press December 10, 2013


Small donations fuel crisis heating assistance program at a time when Vermonters are seeing fewer options



When thinking of the winter months, people often picture toasty fireplaces, roaring wood stoves, or watching the fuel delivery truck pull into the driveway on a snowy morning. For some, though, these images are not a part of reality.


Instead, reality is cold.


For those suffering to keep warm, there is WARMTH, a statewide program administered by Community Action

Agencies across Vermont, including Burlington’s Champlain Valley Office for Economic Opportunity (CVOEO).


The program began in 1986. Unlike state or utility funded heating assistance programs, WARMTH relies on donations to help others keep the heat on. It has an average annual budget of about $100,000. Last year do- nors provided $259,418 for the program.


The WARMTH program has a slightly higher income threshold than others of its kind at 200 percent of the pov- erty level, or $3,926 per month for a family of four.


The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP),funded by federal and state governments,has an income limit of 185 percent of the poverty level; a required income of about $3,632 in the last 30 days for a family of four.


Vicki Fletcher, Crisis Fuel and WARMTH coordinator at CVOEO, explained the program targets the working poor who may not be eligible for fuel assistance or food stamps but still need some help.


On Nov. 25, CVOEO’s lobby had clients waiting to apply for a state crisis fuel assistance program early in the morning. The organization’s director Travis Poulin expected to see about 40 to 50 people come through the door that day alone and for his office to field half as many phone calls from those needing to apply.


Another demonstration of the need: By Nov. 28, the state’s fuel assistance program had already provided $17.5 million in fuel aid to 23,400 Vermont households. Chief of the assistance program, Richard Moffi, expected the program would serve about 28,000 by winter’s end.


In short, WARMTH exists to help those having a particular, perhaps unexpected, hardship. .


Bare necessities


Unlike previous years when recipients could receive financial help up to three times for crisis assistance, this year Vermonters are eligible only once. This is due to LIHEAP cuts, according to CVOEO. If someone is eligible for both seasonal and crisis help, he or she could benefit twice, still less than in the past.


State heating grants, which are transferred directly to fuel dealers bank accounts, average about $800, down

$100 from last year. Moffi said last month these grants will cover about one third of the average household fuel expenses.


CVOEO and other agencies are working to ease the burden of many while taking into account this year’s funding cuts.


“My instincts tell me we’re going to have a lot of scared families this year,” Poulin said.


Those families or individuals who need extra help this year are tough to spot. It is hard to see that someone is cold, which Fletcher said can make fundraising for heating assistance difficult at times. Donors might have a

clear understanding of the need to combat hunger, for example, but home heating is an essential need at times overlooked.


“It’s very clear you need food. It’s a little harder to explain the need for a few gallons of kerosene or what $50 can do for somebody,” Fletcher said.


In fact, even small donations can have a meaningful impact for someone in need.


Poulin remembered one donor who called recently in hopes of donating $50. That is the average amount spent on a WARMTH benefit, he said, typically enough to keep a family safe and warm for about a month not enough to buy a month’s supply of fuel, but enough to stop a disconnect from happening.


According to Fletcher, a $25 donation could heat a house for a day and a half using oil, $50 could heat a house for six and a half days with natural gas, $100 for seven days using propane, and $300 for 18 days nearly three weeks using oil as a heating source.


Fletcher said she had been working with an elderly man, in his 80s, who is a disabled veteran. He is a recipient of fuel assistance but the help he gets is not enough to completely heat his home for the winter.


“Realistically for him, he’s probably looking at being without fuel in January,” Fletcher said. It is a real likelihood that the man will choose not to eat so that he might buy fuel.


CVOEO is holding his funding aside to help make the coldest month is more bearable. Other seniors might have to choose between medication or heat, Fletcher said.

“I feel like we’re failing right now as a society,” Fletcher said, “to have people making the choices they’re being forced to make.”


And it is not only the older generation that needs help. Fletcher noted that her office sees single people, young families with children, refugees, veterans anyone can be affected and many are just one paycheck away from crisis, she said.


Poulin agreed, saying, “You can never anticipate where life is going to take you.”


Fletcher and Poulin both noted that most recipients work and try make the right choices. Still, things happen. Cars need repairs. Jobs are lost. Things get out of control.


In order to sign up for help through the WARMTH program, a prospective recipient must have a disconnect notice. Fuel customers must have only about a week’s supply of fuel left.


“We are only able to help when all other resources are gone,” Fletcher said.


An application helps examine income, expenses, and how money is spent. If a candidate is eligible, CVOEO contacts the utility or fuel dealer and gives the business the money directly. The process is a quick one, Fletcher said, and the fuel dealers know the program’s coordinators.


“It’s a partnership,” she explained. It is often the fuel companies who initiate help from CVOEO for their cus- tomers.


Getting help


Jay (John) P. Hoyt III is 64 years old. He studied art in his younger years and worked for a few Burlington pub- lications.


He is now retired after he spent most of his career as a janitor. His last eight years of employment were with

Sodexo at the University of Vermont’s dining services.


After working for 44 years, Hoyt said he receives $742 per month in Social Security. That will increase slightly

in 2014 to $753.


This year, Hoyt found himself in a bit of trouble. He had arrears of $82 with a $20 connection charge from his heating supplier. Others in his Burlington neighborhood recommended he stop by CVOEO for help.


“Fuel is second only to food, Hoyt said; it’s a basic need.


Hoyt was surprised by the quick process he underwent to get involved. It lasted about 20 minutes. He made an offer to pay arrears up front, he said, since it wouldn’t have been honest to ask for all he owed. He believes he can take care of things going forward, but needed some one-time help.


He said it took him a while to seek out assistance, which he felt was reserved for the very poor, and he con- sidered himself part of the working poor. After working all his life his view on services changed and he grew to respect those struggling; homeless people and welfare recipients, he said.


Now he tells others that if they need help, they should ask for it.


It is the local organizations, like CVOEO, a housing assistance group which helped him dig out of rental debt

and others that help keep Hoyt afloat. Even at the food shelf he said he takes only what he needs.

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