Funding for home heating assistance runs dry early

The coldest days of winter likely still lay ahead, but modest-income residents, hoping to receive one-time federal help to pay their heating bills, are out of luck — at least for now, according to local and state officials.

That is because Georgia has already used up — in less than a month — the $18 million the U.S. Congress allocated to the state through the federal Low Income Housing Energy Assistance Program (L.I.H.E.A.P.). Congress will have to pass a new resolution before the end of the year, to allocate additional funds, to help more people cover the costs of keeping their homes warm this winter.

L.I.H.E.A.P. is a federal program designed to cover one month of heating expenses for people who would otherwise have trouble paying that expense because of a lack of their own money, said Georgia Department of Human Services Spokesperson Lisa Marie Shekell.

“We started out, in November, taking only applications from priority candidates for these funds, namely the elderly and homebound residents,” Shekell said. “Participation was so high during the early application period that we have already depleted our allocation for the year. At this point, the state does not have any additional funds that could be used to help people with home heating assistance.”

The lack of funds left hundreds of people waiting outside the Clayton County Community Services Authority office in Forest Park, on Thursday morning, in freezing temperatures that dipped into the high 20’s and low 30’s.

“There were 300, to 400 people waiting outside, in the cold, and we had to tell them we couldn’t help them because there is no money left for the program right now,” said Charles W. Grant, the executive director of the Clayton County Community Services Authority.

They were waiting to apply for L.I.H.E.A.P. funds, even though the authority posted a note on its web site, on Wednesday, explaining that it was having to delay the start of the general public’s eligibility for the program because of the lack of federal funds.

The authority is the local entity charged with dispersing L.I.H.E.A.P. funding allocations for residents of Clayton, Henry and Fayette counties, according to Grant. He also said the Clayton County Community Service Authority received applications for $327,890 in heating assistance for elderly and homebound residents during the early application period, completely depleting the local allocations.

The authority’s executive director said he anticipated the delay will not last more than a few weeks. “Right now, I’m expecting it will only be about three weeks before Congress can pass a new resolution, and then release some funds to the state, who can, in turn, release it to us,” he said.

In the meantime, Grant said, people can still fill out applications for the assistance, but they will have to understand that they cannot submit those applications at this time. The community services authority will not accept any new applications until additional funding arrives from the federal government, he said.

Clayton County is not alone in dealing with a lack of L.I.H.E.A.P. funds. News reports from across the state, and the Associated Press, show communities, from Savannah, to Macon, to Atlanta, are having to postpone the general public’s eligibility for the program because of the lack of funds.

The Associated Press also reported last week that officials in Oklahoma have had to take similar actions because of funding issues.

Congressman David Scott (D-Ga.) said Congress cut the funding, for the grant program, this year, by 62 percent. He criticized leaders in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives for allegedly pushing forward budgets by reducing funding for assistance programs that help low-income residents with heating, home stabilization and Medicare.

Although the congressman said partisan politics were in play, he stopped just short of calling the Republican leaders in Congress “irresponsible.” He did have harsh words to offer about Republican budget-cutting initiatives, however, calling the L.I.H.E.A.P. funding issue a “very alarming situation,” and an example of a larger problem in Congress.

“The reason this is happening is because of a failure of leadership in Congress,” Scott said. “The Republicans have a mantra of reducing government as much as possible. As a result, they are looking at making cuts in areas that clearly do not need to be cut ... Yes, we have budget issues that must be addressed, but it must not be on the backs of the lower class.”

Scott said he is optimistic, however, that an agreement can be reached to approve another resolution that can provide some additional funding for L.I.H.E.A.P., although officials from his office added that the amount of additional funding is uncertain at this time. Scott said members of Congress have until Dec. 16, to pass a new resolution.

“Help is on the way,” he said.

Meanwhile, local, modest-income residents will have to soldier on, without help to pay heating expenses. Grant said that could put people in precarious situations as they enter December. “It’s extremely dangerous,” he said. “Those persons were lined up in the cold, just waiting to get some help. It takes a toll on us. We have this program that is supposed to keep them warm, and here we are making them endure the cold only to tell them there’s no money.”