Slight hike in call for heating fuel help, but local programs expect more

The number of people seeking heating assistance hasn’t yet grown. But those who provide help expect it will. Photo by Louis from Pexels/ Illustration by Cynthia Prairie

By Cherise Madigan
©2020 Telegraph Publishing LLC

The call for heating assistance has increased this year, but not as dramatically as expected given the economic impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, those who distribute such aid say. As the end of 2020 approaches and programs funded by the federal CARES Act begin to expire, however, those experts suspect the number of Vermonters needing heating assistance will rise even more.

“The real truth of it is, there has been a CARES Act stimulus in place that has allowed families to make different economic and financial choices,” says Carolyn Sweet, director of planning and development for Southeastern Vermont Community Action, more commonly known as SEVCA. Stimulus programs have “absolutely alleviated the worst effects of the pandemic,” she says, creating a relatively average year for heating assistance at SEVCA and other community organizations. Still, Sweet says, SEVCA has seen a 23 percent increase in the number of requests for heating and utility assistance compared to 2019.

The increase has been more subtle at the Chester Andover Family Center, which has worked with 22 households so far compared to 20 last year. The need for assistance often arises when families encounter an unexpected expense, says Family Center board member Nena Nanfeldt, which can have an outsized impact when disposable income is lacking.

75 percent of Vermonters have home delivery of some sort of heating fuel, including wood, pellets, propane, heating oil and kerosene. Photo by Austin J on Unsplash

“People who are financially insecure are making very hard choices about what they’re going to spend their money on,” she says, explaining that rationing heating fuel is one example of this. “It’s not the same people coming to (the Family Center) all of the time. Usually, it’s based on some sort of financial insecurity that has caused them to be in dire straits.”

Nearly a year into the pandemic, more and more households are experiencing financial stress. Until economic recovery begins, or further stimulus is provided, that number of families seeking help is likely to increase, Sweet says. To seek help from SEVCA, click here.

Sweet adds that SEVCA is expecting to see “an incredible increase” in those seeking assistance after Dec. 31, when stimulus benefits end, and if Congress either fails to approve new benefits or approves but doesn’t fast-track their distribution. “We feel that is necessary to keep Vermonters on their feet until the economy begins to recover.”

“The need is going to be persistent, and the weather will get a lot colder,” says Matt Cota, executive director of the Vermont Fuel Dealers Association. “I suspect the number of people reaching out for crisis fuel in Vermont and those applying for seasonal fuel assistance will only increase as we reach the colder months.”

Each year, heating assistance is distributed to Vermonters in need through a state program known as Crisis Fuel, funded by the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program — also known as LIHEAP, which provides grants for heating assistance in northern states like Vermont and assistance for home cooling in the south. In Vermont, those funds are distributed each November through the Vermont Department of Children and Families.

Use of food pantries has risen during the pandemic. Telegraph file photo.

Richard Giddings, director of Heating and Utility Assistance Programs within the Department of Children and Families, says the number of residents who applied for those benefits is about the same as previous years — approximately 14,000 households. The amount provided to each applicant, however, was about 30 percent higher than average thanks to federal stimulus funds.

“There was about $5 million in additional funding,” he says. “In the benefits that we issued on Nov. 12, about $4.4 million of that was CARES Act dollars.”

The normal pool of applicants may have been influenced by a few factors, including the availability of additional financial assistance due to the pandemic, including the Vermont Covid-19 Arrearage Assistance Program, which helps residents pay past-due utility bills. Both SEVCA and the Family Center have seen an increase in use of their food pantries, and Sweet says that demand for services has increased overall due to a rise in the number of households now on a fixed income.

Cota says that he was surprised that the number of applicants for heating assistance was not larger, but added that a combination of the decreased cost of heating oil and increased availability of federal relief funds may have contributed. “Either people are OK, or that number could still build to be much larger,” he said.

About 75 percent of Vermonters have some type of heating fuel delivered to their home, Cota says, which can include wood, pellets, propane, heating oil or kerosene. The most popular fuel choice is heating oil, representing about 45 of that 75 percent And heating oil has seen price drops of 25 to 30 percent compared to 2019.

That decrease in cost has allowed stimulus funds to stretch, Cota said, but the demand for heating fuel has also seen an overall increase during the pandemic due to two factors.

With more people working from home, they are spending more on home heating fuel. Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Cota noted that more people are working from home and “want to be comfortable during the day” and that Vermont has had “an influx of people who are moving into the state or utilizing seasonal homes on a more permanent basis.”

The pandemic has presented its own challenges for fuel dealers, including an increased need for services due to that influx of new residents. One such state requirement is that heating oil tanks must be inspected every three years. Those regulations were enacted in 2017, meaning that many tanks in Vermont have to be inspected by the end of this year.

Any kind of service, including those inspections, was delayed by strict social distancing measures this past spring. Between March and June, Cota says, customers were understandably wary about letting outsiders into their home, putting many dealers behind on such services.

Compounding that delay are the requirements that anyone who drives an oil or gas truck must be properly trained and complete a background check, which have also been slowed.

“There’s been a tremendous demand placed on our industry, but one thing the pandemic hasn’t done is shut us down,” Cota said. “We are an essential business so there was never a pause like you saw with other businesses, but it has significantly changed how we do business.”

Need heating help? Here’s where to start

Locally, the Chester-Andover Family Center will assist those in need by paying vendors directly for past-due heating bills. Click here to find out how to apply. Sometimes, if a bill is too large for the Family Center to cover, it will work with other partnering organizations to take care of it.

Help is available to those who need heating fuel assistance. Photo by Wonderlane on Unsplash

“If you’re a resident of Chester or Andover, all you need to do is make a phone call to the center and leave a voicemail,” says Nanfeldt. “It’s very straightforward.”

Through SEVCA, Vermont residents can be connected with state emergency heating programs and other services or speak directly with a crisis fuel assistance worker. Programs like the Vermont Arrearage Assistance Program and Green Mountain Power’s WARMTH Program are both currently active, Sweet says.

Additionally, Cota expects that the Fuel Dealers’ 15th annual Split the Ticket fund — in which fuel dealers match every dollar donated to “help a neighbor in need” — will be especially impactful this year.

Regardless of whether they are in need personally, however, Sweet says that SEVCA is encouraging Vermonters to speak up and demand additional stimulus from the federal government.

“The impacts of Covid are much more broad than you would imagine,” Sweet says.

“The state of Vermont has done such a great job distributing the CARES Act money, and we can see it’s had a great impact on those we serve in Windham and Windsor counties as well as statewide. We hope it continues into 2021.”

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About the Author: Journalist and photographer Cherise Madigan specializes in writing about outdoor recreation, the environment and travel. She has roots in Manchester and a history of reporting throughout Southern Vermont. Madigan is a graduate of Nazareth College of Rochester, earning her degree in Political Science summa cum laude in 2015.

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