Energy costs drain financial aid available to low-income households

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Salvation Army only able to help one in four who walk in the door.

Agencies that assist low-income households with paying for heating bills have seen a significant increase in the number of families seeking help.

In fact the Salvation Army has received 50 percent more calls from people needing assistance this year compared to last. But most of the Salvation Army's funds to pay for energy bills are usually depleted as soon as they become available.

"We've only been able to help one out of every four people who walks in the door," said Maj. Michael Thomas of the Salvation Army. "If we can't help them we'll refer them to other agencies like the East Missouri Action Agency or local churches."

But with significantly higher natural gas bills this winter, the East Missouri Action Agency's funds to assist low-income families are also diminishing quickly.

Gretchen Weber, community service representative with EMAA, said the agency has helped hundreds of families in the past year and has exhausted its funding for energy assistance.

On Monday, in an effort to help its natural gas low-income customers, AmerenUE contributed a $20,000 grant to EMAA and a $5,000 grant to the Salvation Army for additional energy assistance. The funds will help those customers who are eligible for the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program.

Shanna Ashton, an EMAA community information specialist, said those customers who qualify for LIHEAP fluctuates depending on income and number of people in the household.

Since Oct. 1, 2005, LIHEAP funding has assisted more than 1,300 households in Cape Girardeau County. Another federally funded program, Emergency Crisis Intervention Program, provides funding for households that have received shut-off notices. ECIP has assisted more than 350 households in Cape Girardeau County.

Almost 50 percent of the assisted households from both programs were in threat of having their electricity or natural gas shut off, Ashton said.

"We've had to turn a lot of people away when they ask for our help with their energy bills," Thomas said. "This funding from AmerenUE is greatly appreciated."

For many years AmerenUE has provided $45,000 in funding for energy assistance in Cape Girardeau County.

"We realized that with the rising price of natural gas, more and more customers will need help," said Richard J. Mark, AmerenUE senior vice president with Missouri Energy Delivery. "In the past several weeks, we have taken a number of steps to help them by waiving reconnection fees and deposit requirements for customers who are eligible for LIHEAP assistance."

Weber said it is important for the EMAA clients to pay at least a portion of their energy bills.

"When those utilities are turned off, it's a lot more expensive to get them turned back on," Weber said.

From 2004 to 2005, about 1,500 households received assistance to pay electric bills in Cape Girardeau County. Of those households, 55 customers had their services terminated, according to Molly Martin, AmerenUE credit and collections supervisor.

"I know this past year, the number of households that had their service terminated has increased," Weber said. "Natural gas is extremely higher this year and you couldn't even imagine the amount of people we've had to help. Any extra funding we receive is a definite help."

jfreeze@semissourian.com

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