Recent cold spells are just adding to the pressure staff members at local departments of social services face, as they have been slammed with requests from area households to receive monetary assistance for heating needs.
Since the federal Home Energy Assistance Program opened in the state Nov. 17, departments of social services in Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties have shelled out $2,933,917, $1,122,575, and $3,875,799, respectively, in benefits. An additional total $1,114,413 in furnace repair/replacement and emergency HEAP funds has also been authorized throughout the three counties, according to the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistances HEAP Weekly Obligations report.
Weve had an influx since HEAP opened, said Lewis County Social Services Commissioner Stacy L. Alvord. November was very snowy and cold. January has been brutal. We are so overwhelmed with requests. We cannot keep up with it.
St. Lawrence County Department of Social Services Commissioner Christopher R. Rediehs echoed that statement, and said Wednesday the department fielded more than 1,300 calls throughout the past three days. The majority of those calls were related to HEAP, he said.
Households are going through the fuel faster with the colder temperatures, he said.
According to the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, HEAP offers a regular benefit for low-income New Yorkers who pay a high portion of household income for energy and an emergency benefit for low-income state residents who are facing a heat or heat related energy emergency and do not have resources above the established limits. The emergency HEAP component began Jan. 2.
Furnace repair and/or replacement is also a component of HEAP, and that portion began Nov. 12.
Regular HEAP payments typically range from $400 to $650, depending on household size, income and fuel source. Help is available for households that heat with electricity, fuel oil, kerosene, wood and wood pellets.
Mr. Rediehs said while HEAP is set to end in mid-March, funds the state received could dry up beforehand, therefore ending the program early. If local departments of social services have accepted applications up until that closure point, they will still be processed, even after that closure date, he said.
If youre eligible, the money is there, he said.
The 2013-14 HEAP application for New York was $316 million.
Last season, HEAP benefits totaled $1.9 million in Lewis County, $7.7 million in St. Lawrence County and $6 million in Jefferson County, according to DSS officials.
After some residents tapped into both regular and emergency HEAP benefits, they were eligible for funds through an emergency fuel assistance grant. Ms. Alvord said between 25 and 71 percent of each grant comes from a local share of county revenue and the rest is state or federal funds.
HEAP is all federal, but when it comes to a heating emergency, we are the safety net, Mrs. Alvord said. Its the low-income folks; they can show you exactly where every penny has gone. They just cant keep up with fuel costs. Its not an area we see fraud in.
Karen A. Dupree, head social welfare examiner at the St. Lawrence County Department of Social Services, said those emergency grants are also one-time-only payments, and Jefferson County Department of Social Services Deputy Commissioner James G. Schell said depending on income eligibility for that specific emergency assistance, households might have to pay that back.
Mr. Schell said the entire HEAP season is chaos, with the department answering about 100 HEAP calls daily. More than 400 regular HEAP cases and more than 20 emergency cases are pending, he said.
For more information on HEAP, people can call their social service agencies in Jefferson County at 782-9030, Lewis County at 376-5400 and St. Lawrence County at 379-2111.
Meanwhile, a representative at the American Red Cross of Northern New York said no shelters were set up during the sub-zero weather earlier this week. The nonprofit agency, at 203 N. Hamilton St., Watertown, provided assistance throughout last months ice storm and a severe storm earlier this month that brought several feet of snow across the region.