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Financial help with utility bills now available

By Joel Hall

jhall@news-daily.com

Clayton County Community Services (CCCS) in Forest Park is urging citizens in the Southern Crescent to take advantage of just over $200,000 in an energy assistance grant aimed at helping Georgia families keep their lights -- and heat -- on.

Families struggling with rising energy costs for lights, or heat, are eligible for help under provisions of the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). The money is administered by the Georgia Department of Human Resources.

Since Nov.1, CCCS has been tasked with administering the grants to residents in Clayton, Henry, and Fayette counties.

The utility grants range from $200 to $250, depending on an applicant's status in relation to federal poverty guidelines. In addition to bill-paying assistance, CCCS will be an advocate to power companies for families who have had their heat, or lights, disconnected.

"If their heating has been turned off, generally, we can get their heating turned back on using the energy assistance fund," said Jamminese Miller, CCCS community support coordinator. "The energy program has helped reduce the amount that families have to pay."

Miller said since the Atlanta Gas Light Company became a "pipe-only" company in 1998 and opened itself to competition from other energy providers, energy prices in the state have skyrocketed.

"For the state as a whole, our heating bills have probably increased by 200 percent in the last five years," said Miller. "They say the market will always strive to drive the prices lower, but that didn't happen. Families are struggling to pay their gas bills."

Miller said the grant helps families avoid disconnections and relieves some of the financial strain placed on people living on fixed incomes, such as the elderly.

Janie Allen, a single mother of three in the Ellenwood area, recently moved into a new home in August. In previous months, her electricity bill was around $40, but last month it jumped to $217.

"I would have probably had to wait until I got paid again and been in the dark," if not for LIHEAP assistance, said Allen. "The program has been great ... especially for people who can't get loans and that kind of thing."

Marion Frank-Smith, a life-skills and-career advisor for a local non-profit agency, was living comfortably in her Riverdale home until a messy separation from her husband left her with little savings. In January, she was behind on her electric bill, but on Jan. 7, she was able to get $200 worth of energy assistance.

"I almost started crying," said Frank-Smith. "I thank God ... I would have just been begging Georgia Power to deal with me."

Frank-Smith said during Hurricane Katrina, she assisted hurricane victims coming into the Riverdale area and CCCS was one place she referred people for help.

"You never expect that you are going to need it." She said families in the area in need of energy assistance should give it a try.

"You have to give up your pride a little bit to do the things you need to do to take care of yourself."

Grants are administered once per year on a first-come, first-served basis to people in Clayton, Henry, and Fayette counties, only. Grants will be administered until the funds are depleted.

For more information on applying for a grant, or federal poverty guidelines, call CCCS at (404) 366-0575.