LORAIN — Heating assistance for the needy is up from last year, which advocates attribute to the harsh winter.
The Lorain County Community Action Agency, which runs the county’s heating assistance program, averaged 140 clients per week between Nov. 1 and Monday, according to Jackie Boehnlein, agency CEO and president.
The agency averaged 118 clients per week in the same time period last year
Boehnlein said the 18 percent increase would probably be higher if it weren’t for new guidelines limiting eligibility.
In the 2012-13 season, clients were eligible if they were at or below 200 percent of federal poverty guidelines.
This season eligibility is at or below 175 percent of federal poverty guidelines. A person earning up to $20,107 is eligible and a family of four earning up to $41,172.
Many clients use the Winter Crisis Program which provides up to $175 for people who have had their utilities disconnected due to unpaid bills or are about to have them disconnected.
Through Monday, 1,821 clients have used the program which runs Nov. 1 to March 31. A total of 2,375 used it last season.
The agency received $800,000 of federal taxpayer money for the program this season from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services distributed through the Ohio Department of Development.
The majority of the people using the program — about 22 percent this season — earn 25 percent or less of the guidelines, according to agency statistics.
The percentage has remained about the same since 2010, the last year statistics were available for.
Boehnlein said many of those clients are elderly and living on Medicare and Social Security. Some must choose between paying rent, groceries or utilities. “The poorest of the poor are taking advantage of this program,” Boenlein said.
Shateka Fields, one of seven advocates helping clients, said many are worried about being in the cold and are especially appreciative of the help this year. Fields, an advocate since 2011, said clients’ bills are higher than the last couple of years due to the winter temperatures falling to single digits or colder.
Most use gas or electricity but about 25 percent use propane and have been hurt by Ohio’s propane shortages. The bulk of overall clients come from Elyria or Lorain, but Fields said she has clients from Avon, Avon Lake, Amherst, LaGrange and Oberlin.
Besides the Winter Crisis Program, some clients use the Percentage of Income Payment Plan plus. The program offers a discount on heating bills and protects people behind on their bills from having their credit ratings downgraded.
The program also eliminates arrearages. For instance, a person owing $1,200 who pays their monthly bill on time would have $50 reduced from the arrearage per month. If bills are paid on time for two years, the arrearage would be erased.
Among the clients is 62-year-old Vivian Noel of Elyria, a retired steel worker and toll collector. Noel, who relies on Medicare and Social Security for income, said she got behind on her bills after purchasing a foreclosed home in 2011. Noel said she is grateful for the program which allows her to have more money for clothing and food.
“When you’re on a fixed income you have to do everything sparingly because there’s only so much money,” Noel said. “It helps so much.”