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LIHEAP Can't Keep Up with Need in MS

By Gary Pettus, gpettus@clarionledger.com

February 28 - If the program with the strange-sounding name hadn't come to light, Evelyn Blackwell might be sitting in the dark.

She had heard about LIHEAP on the radio. "It paid my whole light bill for this month - $534," said Blackwell, 48, of Canton. "If they didn't give me help, my power would be cut off, which is what happened last month for five days, when the temperature was in the 20s or 30s."

This time, Blackwell plugged into the Madison County Human Resource Agency - the county's source of money from LIHEAP: the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program. Her plea for aid was among hundreds swamping area agencies that receive federal LIHEAP funds funneled through the state Department of Human Services.

Among the reasons for the misery are smaller paychecks and utility bills that are averaging higher for this time of year.

"We don't ever have enough money," said Sollie Norwood, director of DHS' division of community services. "Our own figures tell us we serve only about 5 percent of the state's eligible population."

The number of households LIHEAP has helped in Mississippi has actually dropped year to year since 2006 - "but that was post-Katrina," Norwood said.  "The need was great."

In 2006, more than 277,000 households got help with their heating or cooling bills; the number fell to 185,257 the next year; and again to 166,047 in 2008.

"But at the rate we're going so far in 2009, we're probably going to serve at least as many as we did in 2006," Norwood said. From Jan. 1 through Feb. 20, the number has more than tripled, to 37,876, compared to 10,386 for the same period in 2008.

For fiscal 2009, DHS has reaped more than $39 million in regular block-grant money for LIHEAP from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which sets guidelines. It received another $3.6 million in emergency contingency funds for people whose utilities have been cut off, or are about to be. The money is for natural gas, wood, electricity, liquid petroleum propane/butane gas, and other energy-related services.

How much one person receives depends on many factors, including the magnitude of need and the number of people living in the household.

"I can't guarantee that everyone will be served," said Robert Morton, vice president of community programs and services for the Hinds County Human Resource Agency.

There, calls for help are up as much as 25 percent this year, Morton said. Still, income restrictions are looser compared to a year ago - which also accounts for the greater demand, Morton said.

For a one-person household, the income ceiling was $13,000. Now it's $15,600, he said. "For each additional person, you add $5,400. So, for a family of four, it would be $31,800."

The amount of money one agency can give depends on the county it's in; those in counties with higher percentages of poor households have more to give. For this fiscal year, Hinds County corralled $3 million for LIHEAP, Morton said.

In 2006 - the most recent year for which a statewide number is available - LIHEAP's average monthly heating and cooling benefit in Mississippi was $250.

"We have 50,000 households that are eligible in Hinds County," Morton said.

So it would take $12.5 million to serve the eligible population in Hinds alone - about a quarter of what Morton's agency received.

It's the same story in counties across the state, Norwood said. "They're seeing more people than before, and those people's bills are higher."

Agencies have had to hire more workers to handle the appeals for help, Norwood said. Those staffers try to give priority to low-income residents who need help the most: the elderly, the disabled and those who take care of a disabled relative.

According to those who work for the Madison County Citizens Service Agency, another conduit for LIHEAP money,  "We've seen at least a 30 percent increase in requests for help compared to this time last year," said Eddie Perry, operations manager. In January alone, the agency helped 151 people in the county pay their utility bills, to the tune of $75,000, Perry said.

"The need is always greater than what you have to work with, especially now that people are getting laid off."

Madison County's neighbor is no better off.

"We've been going crazy here," said Mark Dearman, executive director of the Rankin County Human Resource Agency, the LIHEAP connection for that county. "We gave out $20,000 in January of last year; this January, it was $61,000. One day this year, we had 90 people on the waiting list."

Those who do get aid find that it's not free of strings, if they're able to work, Norwood said.

"That's one of the requirements: If the clients are able-bodied, they must look for a job, and we help them look for one."

In Hinds County, Carrie Davis, whose only income is a Social Security check, isn't able to work. Last summer, when she couldn't afford her utility bills, she got an unexpected call from the Hinds County Resource Agency.

"Someone had turned in my name," said Davis, 74, of Raymond, "and I got my bill paid for three months.

Source: Clarion-Ledger, Jackson, MS