When bitter winter weather hits, many elderly and poor Americans, including families with children, are forced to choose between heating their homes and purchasing food or important medications. But there are so-called safety net programs to help people so they don't have to make that choice: utility companies may lower their fees, the federal government provides money to help pay the energy bills, and private fuel funds also make a difference.
When Dorothea Yancy retired, she finally had time to cook, sew, write and sing in the little house she rents in Denver, Colorado. But cold winter weather nearly shattered her dreams of a happy retirement. She says, jokingly, that her utility bills were strangling her. "Just last year, in December," she explains, "my utility bill was $190 for this teeny tiny house. My son lives in a five-bedroom house, and our utility bills were exactly the same."
The biggest problem was that Yancy's house was not energy efficient. Her son's big house has insulation. Her little house had none, not even in the attic. Her home was so chilly, and her utility bills were so high, her son urged to her to move in with him. But while Yancy says she loves his family, she wanted her independence, and she began looking for a social service agency that could help her keep it. "I had a list of almost every senior program in the area, and started going down the list," she recalls, adding dramatically, "And . . . it worked!"
There are a variety of programs to help people like Dorothea Yancy pay their utility bills. The largest is the federally sponsored, Low Income Energy Assistance Program. Some utility companies offer low-income households discounts on their bills. And, 400 private fuel funds serve communities throughout the country.
George Coling, who directs the National Fuel Funds Organization, explains that fuel funds are charitable programs that are a supplement to the federal funds. They range from statewide groups, to local agencies that cover a single city or utility area. Altogether, they provide more than $100 million to families in need every year. Although some fuel funds receive money from the federal Energy Assistance Program, Coling says most of the support comes through private donations. "The bread and butter funding is voluntary add-on contributions by utility customers," he says. "They're given the option by the utility company of making a donation on their bill, which is then transferred to a non-profit partner." He adds that utility companies will often match the contributions.
Fuel funds can fill in the gap, for instance, if a family has used up federal assistance, but there is an emergency, and they face a shut-off of their electricity. In some cases, the assistance pays a past-due bill. In others, the client might receive an energy credit that lasts one month, or longer, if that is what is necessary to keep the lights on and the heater running.
Fuel funds often get the word out about their services through community centers and agencies that also connect people with other assistance, such as food, transportation and healthcare. That's the case for the nation's largest fuel fund, Energy Outreach Colorado.
"We have a network of agencies across the state, about 100 agencies, where people can go and ask for assistance," says Energy Outreach director Skip Arnold. The fund also helps pay for higher efficiency appliances and more insulation in new low-income housing, and presents the "Energy Hog Traveling Road Show" in schools around the state. This program sends kids home with energy efficient light bulbs and low-cost ideas for saving energy. After all, Arnold says, energy efficiency helps everyone, though he adds that there will always be households that need emergency assistance with their utility bills. "It's critical and the need for that is never going to go away."
Energy Outreach was contacted by a local community center on behalf of Dorothea Yancy, and promptly paid an energy credit that covered Yancy's past due utility bills. The community center also connected her with a federally funded program, which helped to insulate her attic. And then, Yancy says, her landlord got inspired. "He put in new doors, he sealed the back door, and they put all new windows, all the way around!"
These days, Yancy says, staying warm is affordable. "The $190 utility bill I had last year, this year, it was only $90." She says the difference is unbelievable. "These cold, cold nights we've had, if the heat is going all day, I can turn the heat down and sleep very comfortably at night, whereas this time last year, I had almost every throw in the house on my bed."
She adds that her experience with Energy Outreach and the federal Energy Assistance Program has made a difference for her whole community. That's because it inspired many of her neighbors to weatherize their homes.