When Wilma, a retired senior, walked through the doors of the Opportunity Council last January she was frantic. She had just received a disconnect notice from the utility company.
This was the first time Wilma had received any kind of termination notice from a utility service. She had always been able to manage her budget, but a recent increase in her medication costs made this more difficult. Her small Social Security pension could no longer be stretched to cover food, medication, housing and utilities.
This story illustrates the circumstances that too many people in our community find themselves in: wallets stretched thin by the economic realities of low-wage jobs, layoffs, unanticipated illnesses, disabilities, retirement benefits that are too small to keep up with inflation and other economic factors out of their control.
Fortunately, Wilma learned about the energy assistance program and was able to get an emergency appointment, not always easy during the coldest months of the year. Her disconnection was averted and she also received some credit to help her get through the rest of the winter.
Energy assistance provides important support to our community's limited-income families. The federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program is a needs-based program that has felt the impact of sequester and is now recovering from the federal government shutdown with the current fiscal year's funding levels unknown.
But only a fraction of eligible families are served each year, as the federal assistance program is not an entitlement program and resources are limited. In Whatcom County we are fortunate to have strong partnerships with two major utility companies, Puget Sound Energy and Cascade Natural Gas. Both utilities fund low-income energy assistance programs that allow Opportunity Council to help additional households that we would be unable to reach with the federal program only. These energy assistance programs are a vital resource in our community.
Energy assistance programs can also be an access point into other services Opportunity Council administers, as was the case with Wilma. During Wilma's energy assistance appointment, she was identified as a candidate for the weatherization assistance program. As a result, her mobile home received some energy upgrades, including insulation, heating duct sealing and air sealing. The work performed on her house reduced her heating bills by 30 percent, increased the comfort and safety of her home, and employed local contractors to complete the work.
Unfortunately, the weatherization assistance program is facing unprecedented cuts at the federal level, even though it has proven year after year to be a long-term solution toward helping seniors, families and people who are disabled remain in their homes. Weatherization reduces heating cost, which allows energy assistance funds to reach more people in the community and improve the quality of life for more of our limited-income neighbors.
Today, Oct. 30, is National Weatherization Day and is a wonderful opportunity to tell our elected officials about the importance of helping our community members stay warm in the winter and afford their energy bills all year long. These and other anti-poverty programs are vital to the well being of our community.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Lorena Shah is the community services manager at the Opportunity Council and oversees the agency's energy services and employment programs.