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HEAP Helps Low Income Ohioans Stay Warm

Frigid winter weather is forcing some low-income Ohioans to choose between adequate heat and other necessities. But federal assistance is helping thousands of people in Franklin County stay warm this winter. It's called HEAP and it helps pay for heat in winter and cooling in the summer. Marilyn Oberting is the office manager at Community Kitchen on Ohio Avenue where anyone who wants a free meal can get one. Oberting says she understands how difficult it is to stay warm during the winter. She's been passing out all the blankets and bedrolls that she has on hand.

"Just because you have a home doesn't mean you have heat," Oberting says. "Just because you can pay your bills doesn't mean that you can't, like a lot of us, don't have your heat so low that you keep your pipes from freezing but you sit around with blankets on and coats on to stay warm."

Kim Phillips, a regular at Community Kitchen, says she now has a warm place to stay but just a year ago things were different.

"I was living out in the streets, sleeping in bus stops, sleeping in abandoned houses, but I did have blankets in the abandoned houses, but it still was cold," Phillips says. "Sometimes the house you get, the people leave the electricity on and you can buy you a little heater or something or a little grill to stay warm; use charcoal and stuff like that."

People get creative says one social service worker, when they don't have heat. But it's often dangerous. Some burn charcoal, but that can lead to carbon monoxide poisoning. Others turn to electric space heaters - along with overloaded extension cords - and that's a fire hazard.

But there's a federal program that's helping people keep their primary source of heat up and running. It's called HEAP - which stands for the Home Energy Assistance Program. Administered by the Department of Health and Human Services, HEAP will distribute about $5 billion across the U.S. this year. Ohio's share is about $250 million. Janet Cesner works for the Ohio Department of Development, the agency that distributes HEAP dollars to local agencies throughout the state:

"We have senior citizens that are living on fixed incomes that are trying to buy medicine and food and pay for their utility bills," Cesner says. "And then we also have working families that are struggling to make ends meet that might not have health care; they're living right there on the edge, shall we say, or what we call the working poor."

Two agencies in Franklin County distribute HEAP assistance. One is the Breathing Association. The other is Impact Community Action. Cheryl Grice, Impact's HEAP director, says many of their clients live in housing that is substandard.

"Some of the housing that low income families live in is some of the worst insulated housing in our jurisdiction," Grice says. "They're energy sieves if you will. I've walked into homes where you can literally stand in the front door and see right out of the back door and the back door is closed; just because the house is so poorly insulated."

Grice says that families sometimes face eviction from rental housing if they have utilities shut off for non-payment.

"Without our assistance, many families would go under. And in a lot of cases when families are unable to heat their homes, they're putting the rental unit they might live in at risk. And they can lose their housing. So there's a very critical link between being able to maintain your energy and being able to maintain housing. Without it many of our families might be homeless," Grice says.

Last year Impact Community Action made more than 17,000 payments on behalf of low income families in Franklin County. The Breathing Association helped some 7,000 people last year. Most people get assistance with gas or electricity but HEAP also helps pay for kerosene, propane, fuel oil, even firewood, if that's the primary source of heating.

Demand for HEAP assistance has increased this year. That's due in part because eligibility guidelines have been broadened. Colette Harrell, the Breathing Association's HEAP director says families once were eligible if they made 150 percent of federal poverty guidelines. But that amount has been changed.

"We used to deal with people at 150% percent and below," Harrell says. "But now, because so many people are two-parent homes working, so many people are losing jobs or being demoted or underemployed we're looking at 200 percent of the poverty level. So what does that look like? It looks for a family of four, $44,000 a year, that person would be eligible for our program."

Janet Cesner with the Ohio Department of Development:

"The demand is definitely up this year, and we're thinking that's in part because we expanded the guidelines to 200 percent so more people are eligible; but also just because there's just a lot of need out there," Cesner says.