November 5, 2010

A Wild Goose Chase for Utility Assistance

One rainy, cold Thursday morning this October, a young man came into our Northwest Center during our walk-in hours, a utility notice in hand. It stated that his power would be cut off that evening if he was not able to pay. This man had already called or visited all of the other agencies that receive funding to provide utility assistance. He ended up in front of me, soaked and desperate for help.

Most people in his situation get assistance through the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), designed to both assist individuals with a shut-off notice and help low-income people budget for their utility costs throughout the coldest months.

On September 3, the District Department of the Environment's Energy Office hosted a Joint Utility Discount Day at the Convention Center. Lines wrapped around the block with people hoping to finally receive energy assistance. In total, 8,000 D.C. residents signed up.

And what if you did not apply for energy assistance on September 3rd? The Energy Office announced that it would open on November 1st for emergency walk-ins. However, on November 1, Fox 5 reported that “hundreds” of people stood outside the Energy Office.

In this case, you could only get assistance if you had a disconnection notice in hand. The District Department of the Environment's website tells people who need assistance and are not currently facing service disconnection to call 311, the city-wide call center, for an assistance appointment.

As of today, the next available appointment is in April. April is a long and dreary winter away from today.

The Social Services Department here at Bread for the City is consistently returning phone calls and meeting with clients that are on the verge of being disconnected, with very few resources to protect them and their family from living without utilities this winter. We see this as a most pressing issue. In our Northwest Center, my colleagues and I fielded 126 phone calls this September and October, before the most high-cost winter months. This is an increase of 34% since last year.

The city's budget for energy assistance in fiscal year 2011 (which just started October 1) is $17 million in local and federal funds -- well below the pre-recession fiscal year 2008 level of $21.9 million. Back then, LIHEAP helped subsidize exorbitant energy expenses, and acted almost as a form of rent supplement. Now, the program is only helping people who are already under threat of disconnection -- and even those people have little help of preventing a shut-off unless they can bargain with the utility companies to hold off until April.

The young man I met with was incredibly angry at the wild goose chase he had been sent on in search of energy assistance. The transportation cost alone to pay for such a seemingly futile journey would make that week’s budget particularly tight. Thousands of people like him face the very real possibility that they will not be able to pay their energy bill every month, which in turn makes it nearly impossible to focus on more long-term goals. The only option this young man had was to return home to a very dark and cold apartment.

Big thanks to Kate Sims for authoring this post.

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