News

Low-income families getting a warm feeling

By PAT JENKINS

The Mirror

Low-income residents of south King County may get warmth as an early Christmas present from Congress.

The nation’s lawmakers have appropriated $1.9 billion in “regular” funding for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) and $300 million in contingency funds that can be released at President Bush’s discretion.

The money for fiscal year 2005, included in a $388 billion federal spending measure approved by Congress Nov. 20, is about a combined $300 million more than was made available in the previous fiscal year.

Now people who can use the help paying their home heating bills just need to qualify for it. In the south King County area, that’s done through the Federal Way-based Multi-Service Center. The social services agency administers LIHEAP locally, working with low-income families and seniors.

Due to the “soaring” cost of heating homes and families that are “desperate,” there’s no shortage of applicants for the aid, said Bernie Hughes, the center’s director of energy assistance.

From Oct. 4 through Nov. 7, the center received 13,680 calls for help. Hughes said that last year, the center served 5,165 families with LIHEAP funds, “and that was just about 17 percent of the number of people who were qualified.”

“The additional funding (via Congress) could not have come at a better time“ this year, Hughes said.

The problem of matching available funds with need is the same nationwide. An estimated 30 million households were eligible for LIHEAP assistance in the

past year, yet only about 5 million were helped, according to Campaign for Home

Energy Assistance, an advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C.

The group noted the federal government provided $1.8 billion for LIHEAP in

1982, the first year for the program in its current form. The $1.9 billion

ordered by Congress for state-level programs next year (not counting the

discretionary funds) is virtually the same level of funding, even though the cost of

living from 1982 to 2004 has doubled and the number of eligible households has

risen every year.

Fuel for heating has gotten more expensive, too. Natural-gas costs are at

record levels, heating oil has topped $2 per gallon in some areas, and propane

and electricity

are expected to cost more over the winter, according to Carol Clements,

chairwoman of the National Fuel Funds Network, part of the Campaign for Home Energy

Assistance coalition.

“So while a modest increase in LIHEAP funding is good, a significant increase

would be better,” she said. “We hope that for fiscal year 2006, Congress

somehow will find a way to make LIHEAP a (higher) priority.”

The struggle to pay heating bills is felt by other forms of assistance at

Multi-Service Center, said Dini Duclos, chief executive officer.

“With the rising cost of heating their homes placing increasing pressure on

low-income families’ budgets, we are seeing the fallout this time of year. It

shows up in our food bank line each week,” Duclos said.

Editor Pat Jenkins: 925-5565, editor@fedwaymirror.com

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