After delay, needy families can finally fuel up

After a 20-day delay, low-income families who recently ran out of fuel assistance benefits will receive sorely-needed energy assistance funds from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the National Community Action Foundation (NCAF) announced Tuesday morning.

Through the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), states use money from HHS to fund home heating for low-income households, which is administered in Massachusetts by the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) and distributed to local community action groups, like Action for Boston Community Development (ABCD).

Last year, when Massachusetts faced a $100 million loss in their funding and benefits were running out, the agencies began the fight for an increase in funds. In mid-December, Congress passed a temporary spending bill – known as a “Continuing Resolution”— and voted to raise the fuel assistance for LIHEAP to the maximum benefit of $5.1 billion.

Yet until Tuesday, states were still waiting for their individual allocation while the money remained untouched and an estimated 8,000 Boston-area homes ran out of their fuel benefits.

On Tuesday, the funds were increased to $3.95 billion until March 3, with hopes for the remainder to be re-appropriated at that time, ABCD spokesperson Susan Kooperstein said. Despite being grateful for the increase, Kooperstein said they plan to continue fighting for the remainder of the money.

“This is not as much as we’re supposed to have,” she said.

David Bradley, executive director of NCAF, said the delay in fund allocation was slowed in the process of figuring out the calculations for each state, and that HHS was “not to blame.”

“There were people saying, ‘Boy, the administration is just moving slow on this,’” he said. “They actually moved as quickly as they could and it became complicated in the series of resolutions.”

He added, “The Continuing Resolution was not as clear and concise as we would’ve liked it.”

Out of the $1.25 billion increase, up from $2.7 billion, Massachusetts is set to receive $173.3 million, or 98.8% of their funding from last year, according to the NCAF. Now that the funds are allotted, the dozens of community groups participating in LIHEAP can help pay the heating bills for their low-income clients, many of which have been surviving with little or no heat.

“It’s really tragic that you have little old ladies and working families that are having to make really bad decisions about buying food versus buying oil,” said John Wells, vice president of real estate and energy services for ABCD.

Last year, the original amount allotted for families in the lowest income bracket was $515, enough for about half a tank of oil, Wells said. Once the new funding is dispersed, those families will get an estimated additional $600-800.