As winter comes on in Maine, local agencies are seeing a dramatic increase in fuel assistance applications. LARRY PETERSON PHOTO

Agency sees drastic increase in fuel assistance applications

ELLSWORTH Two hundred percent. That is the increase in applications Downeast Community Partners (DCP) has received for the Home Energy Assistance Program (HEAP), the federal fuel assistance initiative formerly called the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LiHEAP).

In addition, DCP, which serves Mainers in Hancock and Washington counties, has seen a 50 percent increase in applicants for The Heating and Warmth (THAW) fund, which the agency created to help those who may not qualify for federal programs, such as HEAP. It was created to help “people who fall through the cracks,” in emergency situations, explains Lee Hardison, the energy services director for DCP. The fund is available to recipients once in a 12-month period and is supported solely by outside contributions. And, it is already almost tapped. 

“What we’re hearing is the unfortunate but obvious [reason]. It is related to the pandemic,” Hardison said of the community’s increased need.

The area has a solid workforce of seasonal and service-industry workers, many of whom took a financial hit due to the pandemic, Hardison notes. In addition, many fishermen did not have a market for their product with restaurants closed. She points out that even though many workers are now re-employed, it can take several months to catch up on past-due bills.

Hardison reports that last year, 356 applicants, about 50 per month, received THAW funds in a seven-month period, with the remaining months tapped for funding. This year, in the month of October alone, 74 households received help from the THAW fund and $5,000 more has been spent than this time last year. 

While the pandemic has kept fuel prices relatively low, Hardison does not expect this to last. The agency does not receive any discounts on fuel prices.

Without donations to the fund, Hardison estimates the current $25,452 balance will run out by December and maybe earlier. It will take an additional $100,000 to meet the increased need in the months following.

“Ultimately, we are trying to work ourselves out of a job,” Hardison said of DCP’s efforts to aid Downeast residents. “Sometimes, we need exterior help from the community to do that.” 

Donations can be mailed to DCP’s office at 248 Bucksport Road in Ellsworth. Donations are also accepted on DCP’s website and by calling the office at 664-2424. 

For those interested in accessing THAW funds, Hardison said DCP staff ask applicants a few questions to get an understanding on their energy situation, including questions about monthly income and who their fuel vendor is. There are not any income requirements to be eligible for the program, but applicants must be at or below one-eighth of a tank of fuel or be down to one week’s supply of wood or wood pellets.

For HEAP, federal income limits apply. 

“All [HEAP] applications are done via phone this year,” said Hardison, in an effort “to make it easier for folks in both counties to keep them safe and keep them in their homes.” Hardison partially credits the easier process for the steep increase in applications.

While staying warm is an issue that hits especially close to home in the Pine Tree State, as Mainers brace for several cold months, the THAW fund is not unique in its funding challenges. Federal heating programs are often the target of funding cuts, said Megan Hayes of DCP’s office of communications and resource development in an email.

At the beginning of the pandemic, the Trump administration proposed diverting $37 million in HEAP funding to help address the coronavirus, according to a Feb. 28 report in the Portland Press Herald.

Reps. Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden, as well as Sens. Angus King and Susan Collins, opposed the proposal.

Back in 2015, the Obama administration initially doubled funding for federal heating programs during the recession, but then decreased funding by 30 percent over the next five years, according to a Feb. 8, 2015, report in the Washington Post.

Rebecca Alley

Rebecca Alley

Reporter at The Ellsworth American
Rebecca is the Schoodic-area reporter and covers the towns of Eastbrook, Franklin, Hancock, Lamoine, Sorrento, Sullivan, Waltham, Winter Harbor and Trenton. She lives in Ellsworth with her husband and baby boy who was joyously welcomed in June 2020. Feel free to send tips and story ideas to [email protected]

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