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Oregon's REACH Grant

Prepared by Kevin Nehilla, REACH Coordinator

Allocation: 1996, $1.6 million, including $100,000 for energy efficiency education

PROGRAM AREAS

1. GOALS AND ASSUMPTIONS

A. General goals

Assist low-income Oregon households to develop resource management skills that lead to:

1. Reduced energy consumption
2. Ability to remain current in fuel bill payments
3. Reduce home heating or cooling costs
4. Eliminate health and safety risks to family members

Develop a home energy assistance program that is an access point to a complex of services which assist low-income Oregonians to move toward self-sufficiency.

Create a family stabilization and self-sufficiency model that is replicable in a variety of demographic and community settings.

B. Project Assumptions

An effective energy assistance program should coordinate services and resources to enable low-income families to better manage their energy costs, ensure that the LIHEAP payment offsets actual energy cost rather than the arrearage and benefit home energy suppliers by reducing arrearages.

Programs that combine services and resources are mom effective in achieving long term results than programs that am not coordinated with services of related programs. A resource management plan that is based on the needs of an individual household and involves household members in its development can identify the specific type of intervention which will best address family members' needs and establish strategies to address those needs. Those programs will provide family members with a coordinated cluster of services and intervening activities that will enable the household to better manage resources, reduce energy consumption, and eliminate energy arrearages.

Low-income households need education and weatherization activities in addition to a LIHEAP payment in order to reduce or end reliance on LIHEAP assistance.

Each year approximately 30,000 Oregonians receive LIHEAP energy assistance payments that do nothing to reduce the economic impact of increased winter energy costs related to heating because funds are used to buy down accumulated arrearages. Low-income households with arrearage or high energy burdens are most in need of having their home energy cost reduced through combined intervention of energy education, home energy assessment which identifies low-cost/no-cost weatherization activities, and

if appropriate, comprehensive weatherization of the home. Reduction of home energy cost is one way to reduce the energy burden of the household and provide a long-term solution to high-energy burden.

II. DESIGN

A. Project Structure and Services

The REACH project was based on the belief that an effective energy assistance program should coordinate services and resources to enable low-income families to better manage their energy costs. This should increase the likelihood that the LIHEAP payment will offset actual energy costs, rather than arrearages alone. It is well established that low-income households need education and weatherization activities in addition to a LIHEAP payment in order to reduce or end reliance on LIHEAP assistance.

The program was also structured on the needs of individual households. In this way family needs were identified and specific strategies were developed to address them. The program was designed to provide family members with a coordinated cluster of services and intervening activities to enable the household to better manage resources, reduce energy consumption, and eliminate energy arrearages. It is also important to point out that not all of these services were offered to each household. Rather the REACH Educator negotiated their delivery separately with each client based on a joint determination of household need and service availability in the community.

The program was delivered by twelve community based organization. Services and benefits included co-payments on utility bills, energy education, residential repair and weatherization assistance. In addition, family services related to budget management, payment plans, and case management were provided. The specific activities that were delivered in this project are listed in section 2B. Local agencies sought to leverage resources for REACH operations and negotiate with energy suppliers to develop payment plans for reducing arrearages of REACH participants.

B. Specific REACH Activities

1 . LIHEAP intakes completed & used to identify eligible REACH participants
2. Identification of participant pool
3. Potential REACH participants complete an initial energy education orientation
4. Marketing of REACH program
5. Notification and recruitment of participants
6. Final selection of program participants
7. CAA/CBO Weatherization will conduct assessment of the physical dwelling and heat system
8. Create the REACH action plan for the household
9. Complete a referral for home weatherization or heat system repair if necessary
10. Work will all household members to complete the action plan
11. REACH Coordinator will facilitate participant negotiations with the energy vendor or vendors to reduce arrearage or arrearages
12. Explore alternative payment procedures
13. Discuss budget counseling for the household
14. If weatherization is needed, conduct a computerized WEXOR audit of dwelling to determine the cost effective measures to be installed
15. Referrals to CAA/CBO family stabilization and self-reliance programs
16. Schedule follow-up contacts with the participants
17. The participant will evaluate the program when the Action Plan is completed

III. EVALUATION

A. Current Data Collection Processes

A large number of instruments were developed for administering and evaluating REACH. We approached the development of these tools with three objectives:

1. To provide complete and useful information to those delivering the program;
2. To obtain reliable data required for evaluating the project;
3. To make the data collection process as unobtrusive as possible.

We also feel that since the Oregon REACH program is predicated on the value of a package of comprehensive services and carefully monitored items negotiated with clients, it would be useful to provide a central record of client centered activities. It was for this reason that we developed the Client Narrative Form.

We might also note that the inclusion of a control group is one of the distinctive features of the Oregon REACH evaluation. Subjects for this group were drawn from each agencies pool of LIHEAP recipients who did not participate in Reach. In Oregon the procedure for collecting such data has always required the client to sign a release form to allow the agency to access their utility records. As a result we obtained full consent from each subject in the control group to collect their utility, energy and billing records.

The information employed in monitoring and evaluating the REACH program was drawn from several sources. Section 3B lists the principal forms and assessment tools developed for this purpose. They are currently on file in the Office of Community Services, Department of Health and Human Services and included in the Appendix of the final report of the Oregon REACH program.

B. REACH Protocols

1. LIHEAP intake form
2. Client signed contact letter and utility release form
3. Dwelling assessment form
4. Energy action plan
5. REACH action plan
6. REACH client narrative
7. REACH client intake assessment
8. REACH client energy/billing history
9. REACH client activity summary
10. Client Program Completion Review
11. Client Feedback Survey
12. Staff Feedback Survey

IV. PROGRAM LESSONS

Once the project was underway, changes and/or modification were made in both program activities and assessment procedures. With respect to the latter, some forms were changed or dropped because of their redundancy or because more specific information was required for the evaluation. In addition, to obtain a higher percentage of returned forms, it was decided to complete the client feedback forms, while the six-month follow-up was eliminated. As an incentive to encourage completion of the client feedback forms, $20 was added from the discontinued six-month follow-up phone call. The majority of CBO's felt that the needs of their clients would be met after the three-month follow-up phone call and that all discretionary funds would be exhausted by then. Finally, it was decided to eliminate the REACH action plan form, since the same information is captured on the client narrative.

With respect to program activities, several items were added, once it was underway. Discretionary funds were not only utilized for arrearages and co-payments. But also for replacement of water heaters, furnaces, electronic thermostats, CO detectors and heating repairs (up to $100). These changes were made in response to CBO request to better meet their clients needs. Because of their cash flow difficulties, CBO's were allowed to apply for start-up costs.

In addition, the energy burden required for enrollment in the REACH program was lowered from 20 to 15%. This was instituted once it became clear that the majority of clients had lower energy burdens. It was observed that some individuals did not spend all of their discretionary payments, while others needed more because of a crisis situation. Instead of allocating $250 of discretionary payments per household, it was decided to make the average payment across all clients $250.

There is not doubt that the dedication of the REACH coordinators has been the major factor responsible for facilitating the program goals. They are committed to providing an access point to the complex of services and assistance provided by the REACH project. They have also made excellent suggestions for improving the program so they are able to respond more effectively to client needs.

On the other hand, there have been barriers that have impeded to some extent the delivery of some components of the program. The project began somewhat later than originally planned. In addition, the REACH coordinator was hired just a short time before the important initial statewide meeting. Further, because REACH agents are also responsible for administering the state Low Income Energy Assistance Program (LIEAP), they have been unable to devote as much time to REACH as might otherwise be desired.

Funding limitations made it impossible to weatherize all households that needed it. Indeed, the housing conditions of some REACH clients are considered substandard for weatherization. Even when it has been possible to weatherize a home, we have observed, with distressing frequency, that clients are likely to drop out of the program. They do so on the assumption that they have achieved all that is requited to reduce their energy costs. As a result, they do not receive the full benefits of the program.

Other barriers have included the difficulty of contacting some individuals for follow-up interviews, because their phones have been disconnected. In addition, agents report that clients are not always at home when a dwelling assessment or visit has been scheduled. Finally, some households who have received utility fuel funds are not eligible for the LIEAP program and thus, lack one of the requisites for participating in REACH.