Nonprofits urge support for heat assistance funding

By: Brendan Losinski | Advertiser Times | Published October 17, 2017

METRO DETROIT — Millions of people across the United States are kept warm each year thanks to funding from the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. However, declining federal appropriations means groups that receive money from this fund are finding it harder and harder to assist those in need.

Funding from Congress for LIHEAP has dropped from $5.1 billion in 2010 to $3.39 billion in 2016. Groups that utilize this funding are trying to rally public support to prevent further cuts to the program. Among those groups is The Heat and Warmth Fund, a nonprofit that provides utility assistance to Michigan residents.

“We are able to use those funds to assist families throughout the year by helping them with affordable rate plans and keeping their heat and power on during times of crisis,” said Matt Phillips, THAW’s chief operating officer. “It’s important to acknowledge in Michigan that there’s 1.2 million households eligible to receive these LIHEAP funds, and there’s (currently) only enough funds to help 454,000 households. Getting this funding is so important, even at the reduced amount it’s at today.”

Phillips said heating and cooling assistance can be even more important for people with conditions that can be exacerbated by extreme temperatures.

“We have pretty hot summers, and we are going into our cold winters, and heat and cooling services are a necessity. People shouldn’t have to choose between heating or eating,” said Phillips. “Seventy percent of the LIHEAP households had at least one person who was elderly, disabled, a child, or had a medical condition that could be exacerbated by not having heat or cooling services.”

Many nonprofit leaders are encouraging members of the public to contact their local representatives to tell them how important this funding can be for people, and how decreases could mean harm to themselves or their neighbors.

“One of the biggest things they can do is contact their congressperson,” he said. “If they go to our website, where we have a lot of information about LIHEAP, you can find out who your congressperson is and how to contact them. We hope people will do just that to help protect Michigan families.”

The Accounting Aid Society, which serves the northeast Detroit area by helping people apply for home heating credits, reports that the lower budget is putting additional burdens on people trying to keep their homes warm in the winter.

“Less funding makes it harder for people,” said Janet Huntoon, the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program manager. “Even with home heating credits, (the government) has cut out senior exemptions. It makes access more difficult for people, and it’s harder to get service and pay their bills.”

Additionally, the increased difficulty and lower number of people who can be helped with LIHEAP funds means fewer people are trying to apply for these funds.

“There are less people trying because they don’t feel they can get help,” said Huntoon. “We refer them to get the State Emergency Relief, and we try to do THAW applications when we have the budget.”

Phillips said the LIHEAP funding is a lifesaving necessity.

“This program needs to remain funded, knowing that over 62 percent of households in Michigan are not being served by LIHEAP but are eligible for this program,” said Phillips. “They are facing (an) energy crisis. We need to keep babies, seniors and families warm. This is a necessity, not a luxury.”