Many Options Available for Those Who Need Help with Heating Bills
Oct 01, 2017 11:10AM
By Vanessa Orr
With cold weather just around the corner, it’s important to start budgeting now to be able to pay increased heating bills. But what if you just can’t make ends meet? Depending on your circumstances, there may be federal or state programs that can help, as well as programs put into place by different utility companies. There are also some nonprofit organizations that are willing to help people with high bills make it through the winter—but it helps to know where to look.
“Whether you’re looking for help with paying bills or ways to make your home more energy-efficient, the best place to start is with your local utility,” explained Dave Hixson, spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Utility Commission (PUC). “The PUC requires these companies to have programs and protections in place for low-income customers, which they implement at the local level.”
According to a September PUC press release, state utilities spent nearly $398 million on customer assistance programs last year, not including private assistance or the federal Low Income Heating Assistance Program (LIHEAP). These programs help reduce the monthly bills or reduce energy consumption for more than 313,000 electric customers and over 160,000 natural gas customers across the state.
In addition, utilities and their customers also contributed several million dollars per year in hardship funds to assist thousands of families. Unfortunately, enrollment in these assistance programs has dramatically increased over the past decade.
To this end, the PUC works with local human service agencies and assistance organizations to teach them about utility programs and services available in different communities. These “train the trainer” events, which kicked off in September, help to spread the word about financial assistance programs for utility customers, career tools for job seekers, energy conservation and weatherization, protecting against utility scams and more.
“There are a number of programs to help people, from Customer Assistance Programs (CAP) that help with utility bills, to CARES (Customer Assistance Referral and Evaluation Program) for people with special needs,” said Hixson. “There’s also LIHURP, which channels dollars to residents to help them pay for efficiency/conservation measures that can reduce energy usage in their homes during the winter months.”
CAP and CARES
Customer Assistance Programs (CAPs) can lower monthly bills or even remove amounts already owed; in order to take advantage of this, customers need to talk to their utility companies to see if they qualify for the program that determines what they can pay versus the cost of energy used. The CARES program helps customers with special needs, which can include family emergencies, divorce, unemployment or medical emergencies. Hardship funds, also provided by the utility companies, can provide cash assistance to those who don’t fit into other assistance programs or who still need assistance after other resources have been exhausted.
If a homeowner qualifies, he or she can also make changes in their home to help save energy. The Low-income Usage Reduction Program (LIURP) is designed to enable the utility company to install energy savings features in a customer’s home in order to reduce bills.
Perhaps the most well-known program is LIHEAP, the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program run by the federal government that is administered in Pennsylvania by the Department of Human Services. The program, which is based on household income, provides both case and crisis benefits to either pay for home energy needs, or to meet emergency home energy repairs.
LIHEAP’s CRISIS benefits are designed to help low-income families avoid termination or help restore service during the winter heating season. To apply, Allegheny County residents should go to a CRISIS office or go to one of North Hills Community Outreach’s three main offices in Allison Park, Millvale or North Boroughs for assistance and to fax the application directly to CRISIS. For more information, contact the Department of Human Services at 1-800-851-3838.
The Dollar Energy Fund
Another option is the Dollar Energy Fund, a privately run hardship fund designed to assist low-income families with utility bills. In the past 34 years, the fund has provided $139 million in utility assistance grants to more than 500,000 limited-income families and individuals. Dollar Energy Fund, Inc. has grown to become the largest hardship fund in Pennsylvania and one of the largest in the country.
According to its website, through a partnership with local gas and electric companies, the fund is able to offer grants to help families restore service or prevent termination. People who need this kind of help can work locally with North Hills Community Outreach, which is authorized to help homeowners apply. NHCO helped 296 families receive Dollar Energy Fund grants last year.
North Hills Community Outreach and other avenues
NHCO is also occasionally able to help with utility bills, as funds allow and depending on individual circumstances and eligibility. People experiencing a financial crisis who qualify under NHCO’s income guidelines at 150 percent of poverty or below should contact the nearest NHCO office.
In Butler County, the Center for Community Resources provides an information and referral hotline to assist people in resolving home heating and energy crises. Its Utility Assistance Program acts as a single point of contact for the many governmental, private and charitable funds that are available to address energy and related needs, and can also provide weatherization and energy conservation information.
Some churches also offer help with utility bills; for example, the Allegheny Valley Association of Churches may offer utility assistance as part of their short-term rent assistance program. Members of local congregations should also talk to their church leaders about getting help.
Most important, don’t wait until it’s too late to ask for assistance. “One of the things that I need to stress is to act sooner rather than later,” said Hixson. “Don’t wait until you’re in a crisis situation, or receive a termination notice from your utility. There are a host of programs that can help you stay safe and warm this winter, but you need to reach out.”