ABCD looking to winter’s cold, aiming to help with fuel costs

As winter approaches, applications are already on the rise for federal fuel assistance. The doors opened just last week for this year’s allotment.

Officials at Action for Boston Community Development, which distributes resources from the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, said the state has already received $162 million in federal funding.

LIHEAP funding is administered through the state Department of Housing and Community Development, which works with some 20 agencies across the state to distribute the funds. About $10 million of that total will be distributed by ABCD this year, officials said.

Last year, the state distributed $225 million in federal funding and $10 million from the commonwealth, the Boston-based agency reported. And the number of applications is already higher than last year, officials said.

“I think we’ll see between a 10 percent and 20 percent increase in households this year, which means another 2,000 to 4,000 families,” said John Drew, president and chief executive at ABCD.

Last winter, the program raised the eligibility levels up to close to 300 percent of poverty level, which made more households eligible. There also was a 20 percent increase in demand over the previous year, with some 20,000 households across Boston served with fuel assistance in 2008-2009.

“We expect to have more than 20,000 households this year seeking fuel assistance alone,” Drew said. “We are also seeing more people coming for the food pantries and more people coming to get other assistance to help to stave off being thrown out by the landlord. There are an awful lot of people who are on unemployment benefits or who have come off unemployment and are working part-time.”

Many households do not have enough money to pay all of the bills, including electricity, he said. “We are trying to help them get enough resources so they can survive. It’s a tough time and I don’t see it getting any better. We are doing triage work. A lot of people are coming in because they don’t even have their utilities on because of nonpayment.”

The maximum benefit this year for fuel assistance is $985. That amount will increase if more federal funds become available. A family of four with an income of $56,011 is eligible for fuel assistance. A person living alone with an income of $29,126 is also eligible.

The need for additional LIHEAP funding is difficult to predict. “The price of oil goes back and forth,” Drew said. “The price is variable and can spike. We also could get a very bad cold spell. “

The main message from ABCD is that residents should come in and apply. “Once they are in they could be eligible for other things like a discount on their electric bill or to get their apartment weatherized,” Drew said.

ABCD operates two service centers in Dorchester, one at 110 Claybourne St. and the other at 551A Talbot Ave. In addition, they have a center at 535 River St. in Mattapan. Families and individuals may call ABCD at 617-357-6012 to find out if they are eligible. The downtown office and neighborhood centers are expected to announce expanded weekday and Saturday hours to meet the demand for applications.