Temperatures plunge, requests for home-heating aid soar

Walk-in traffic at Community Action Partnership of Ramsey and Washington Counties has doubled under this winter’s frigid, enduring grasp.

About 200 people a day are flooding into those CAP offices to sign up for help in paying home-heating bills this season at a rate that suggests numbers will outpace the 23,000 households who signed up last winter through the agency, according to Keich Hepburn, the agency’s energy assistance outreach coordinator.

Across the state there are reports of similar spikes as the Minnesota Department of Commerce reminds low-income households that help is available through Minnesota’s Energy Assistance Program (EAP). Sky-rocketing propane prices — more often seen as a home-heating source in Minnesota’s rural areas — are contributing to the surging wave of requests for assistance.

So far, CAP of Ramsey and Washington Counties has enrolled 18,000 people in EAP.

Hepburn said their numbers include not only families with children, but also people on medical disability, seniors on fixed incomes, the unemployed and small-business owners where a business has failed.

Community Sketchbook, reported and written by Cynthia Boyd, focuses on the economic and social challenges facing communities, especially low-income communities and communities of color, and how people are trying to address them. It is made possible by sponsorship support from The Minneapolis Foundation. Community Sketchbook articles may be republished or distributed, in print or online, with credit to MinnPost and the foundation.

“The death of a spouse can put people in a crisis situation, also sometimes medical expenses” change an economic situation, which means people need help paying for heat, Hepburn said.

EAP grants in many cases only ease the pain of high-energy-bills. Grants range from a minimum $100 to $500 per household paid out during the heating season, though emergency funds are available for crisis situations.

Last week U.S. Sens. Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar announced in a joint press release that the bipartisan federal spending bill included an additional $3.4 billion for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, an increase of $169 million from sequester levels. Minnesota is waiting to hear just how much more money it will receive.

Also, the state Commerce Department is taking steps to increase payments to as much as $1,000 for those warming their homes with propane or heating oil.

Last year the state program served 147,636 households with $109 million in federal funds.

Eligible are households with an income of less than 50 percent of the state median income (that median is $43,642 for a family of four), and persons living at 110 percent of poverty or below. A family of four with an income of $23,550 qualifies for poverty benefits, according to 2013 Federal Poverty Guidelines.

CAP of Ramsey and Washington Counties is one of 32 agencies around the state administering energy assistance funds, which are paid directly to utility companies. The agencies also offer home energy crisis intervention and weatherization services. People may apply to the seasonal program until May 31.

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    Cynthia Boyd's picture
    Cynthia Boyd

    Cynthia Boyd writes Community Sketchbook for MinnPost.