Cantwell warns seniors, low income could lose heating aid

By:  Lornet Turnbull
Source: The Seattle Times

Barbara Jackson's Central Area home used to get so cold in the winter that she would sit in her 1974 Ford Maverick in the driveway and crank up the heater just to get warm.

The 1903-era house where she has lived for more than 40 years and raised her children had an "antiquated furnace that took up the entire laundry room."

About five years ago, Jackson, 72 and living on a fixed income, tapped into a federal program that helps elderly and low-income households pay their heating bills. Through the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP, Jackson's old furnace was replaced and each winter she gets a few hundred dollars to help pay her heating bills.

As she got older, Jackson said, the cold grew even less tolerable and, "without that program, it would have been impossible for me to remain in that house."

On Sunday, Jackson stood alongside U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, who told a group of seniors at a University District housing complex that thousands like them could lose that assistance under a budget bill now in Congress.

Last year, about 100,000 households in Washington state — including about 48,000 in King County — received an average of $305 in wintertime heating assistance from LIHEAP.

The amount is based on a formula that has been used for 25 years to allocate funding to the states — more to Northern states for heating in the winter and less to Southern states for cooling in the summer.

Cantwell told some dozen people at Blakeley Manor that a budget bill in the U.S. House of Representatives proposes a change in the formula that would shift about $30 million meant for Washington state — and $5 million for King County — to help households in Arizona, Texas and Florida.

Under it, more than 40,000 households in the state — including 10,000 in King County — would not get assistance.

Cantwell favors the U.S. Senate version that retains the current formula, delivering about $69 million in LIHEAP funds to Washington state.

The Senate Appropriations Committee approved a budget bill on Sept. 22; and the House version, introduced Sept. 29, is awaiting approval by the House Appropriations Committee. The two versions eventually will have to be reconciled.

Cantwell said that while she's not against providing Southern households with help staying cool, it should not come at the expense of people like Jackson.

"Winter is at our doorstep," Cantwell said. "Those who need energy assistance need answers that this program will continue. We are seeing some of the chilliest days already and it's only November."

Each year, beginning in November and running through June, low-income and elderly clients apply every year for heating assistance through one of three programs: Multi-Services Centers; Hopelink; and Central Area Motivation Program, or CAMP.

They may apply as long as there are funds available, said Leon Garnett, program director for CAMP.

Eligibility, he explained, is based on household income and size as well as energy use.

Over the past two years, Cantwell said, there has been a 50 percent rise in the number of households receiving help.

Already this year, the program has helped 38,000 households.

Jackson said she's already applied for this coming winter. "If you don't get there early enough," she said, "they run out of money or it may be way less."