As heating costs rise, some fear low-income residents could be left in the cold

Residents voice concerns about agency’s ability to make timely payments to those in need

With temperatures dropping and home heating costs rising, area advocates fear that agencies providing utility assistance to vulnerable residents will become overwhelmed by unprecedented demand.

Miami Valley Community Action Partnership on Nov. 1 launched its Home Energy Assistance Winter Crisis Program with $750,000 in taxpayer funds. The program runs through March 31 and serves customers in Montgomery, Darke, Greene and Preble Counties who have a household income at or below 175% of the federal poverty guidelines, MVCAP said.

“There are so many people in dire need right now due to inflation,” said MVCAP Director of Energy Assistance Programs Monique Walker. “It’s been announced that heating bills will be increased this year, so there will be a lot of families and we want to make sure that everyone can keep their heat and lights on.”

But some residents are concerned about the ability of agencies like MVCAP to handle the onslaught of need. This includes Kathy Jacobs, 60, who has lived in her Dayton apartment without gas for a month after reporting to police that someone racked up a gas bill in her name that she can’t afford to pay off.

“I use my oven to warm up my downstairs, and at night time because it gets ice cold up here and I can’t afford to be sick right now...I heat myself up with this little space heater,” she said.

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Jacobs said she called MVCAP for help but couldn’t get assistance. She can’t drive to their office for application help because of a host of health problems.

“I can’t be sick and die up here with nobody knowing it because I live here by myself,” she said.

The Dayton Daily News has documented cases where people said they requested rental and utility assistance from MVCAP but had to wait months before receiving aid.

MVCAP is focused on serving all customers in need as quickly and efficiently as possible, said Erin Jeffries, the vice president and chief operating officer at the agency.

“Since the pandemic with its financial repercussions, we are seeing customers apply for assistance who have never needed our assistance before. And so our application volume has gone up dramatically,” Jeffries said. “Unfortunately that does increase the wait times for our customers but we are committed to serving them as quickly as possible and we are doing a lot of things to speed up our processes.”

The changes include a dedicated phone support team that will answer calls and assist people trying to apply for the HEAP program. The phone number is 937-514-4777, and Jeffries noted there will be wait times because call volume is high. The office has also opened a walk-up window open Monday through Thursday from 8:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. and from 1 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. where people can receive help applying.

The MVCAP office on North Main Street in Dayton had been closed to walk-in appointments since early in the pandemic, which led to complaints.

“We wanted to make sure people could have the one-on-one interaction with our staff that they have been so desiring since COVID and this is a way to do that,” Jeffries said.

People can also apply online at the Miami Valley Community Action Partnership website. Last winter, MVCAP spent $410,000 to support about 1,700 families.

‘We need warmth’

Having to beg and borrow from family and friends is a tough situation to be in, Sandra Bowden said.

Bowden is a Dayton area community activist who has called for better access to grocery stores in low-income areas and told the Dayton Daily News that she has been in positions where paying the heating bill was difficult.

“It’s just as important as food. We need shelter, we need warmth and we need clothes just to be able to function,” Bowden said.

She said there is a large need in Dayton and people try to come together in difficult times. She knows complexes where if someone gets their water turned off, neighbors will allow them and their families to take a shower at their place.

“These are our neighbors and we have to take care of each other in times of need and the need is so great,” she said.

The energy cost increases have many people who are already struggling to make ends meet worried, fellow activist Ciara Owens said.

She said there is a stereotype that people who use the welfare system know how to easily manipulate it — but that isn’t the case. She said many people who are looking for assistance in the community are often overwhelmed by the process of applying and it’s important for agencies to have the most streamlined process possible.

Dione Dudley, of Dayton, said she applied for assistance earlier this year but had to fill out more than one application and went without electricity for a few months before it was restored about a month ago.

“I called and kept on calling,” Dudley said.

‘They didn’t get the help’

Ed Sullivan knows those troubles too well. As a volunteer call taker on a local helpline , he has heard from residents who have struggled to get through to Miami Valley Community Action Partnership. He said he’s heard about the agency not being open to the public, long wait times on phone calls and slow email responses causing issues for people in need.

“I’ve talked to many, many people who filed multiple applications and the end result was they didn’t get the help for their utilities, they didn’t get the help for the rent,” Sullivan said, noting he knows stories where the tenant was evicted because the landlord didn’t believe they had asked for help.

He noted that he is sure MVCAP has helped people pay bills but said he has heard too many stories about people struggling. In one case, a person had to ask a local business owner to fill up jugs of water so they could use the toilet and take a bath, he said. The resident then had trouble with the city because the utilities were off for an extended period of time, Sullivan said.

He believes government program funding should be spread among other agencies to give people more options when applying for help.

Other programs

Along with MVCAP, there are other options people can use to seek assistance. Bowden and Owens said many local churches offer support for those in need and the local Salvation Army also can help.

Last year, the Salvation Army provided about $300,000 in direct assistance to people in need, pastor Shawn Williams said. The money comes from donations and grants, he said.

This year, CenterPoint Energy has provided $25,000 and the Salvation Army has partnered with AES of Dayton to help pay for electric bills.

Williams said that he isn’t surprised to hear that people need help in the community and said that the Salvation Army also tries to give people a helping hand to improve their lives.

“We work to encourage people and connect them to resources so they don’t have to live off assistance,” he said.

Unprecedented assistance

MVCAP distributed about $16 million in COVID aid over the last couple of years, Jeffries said, which was a lot more assistance than the agency usually handled. It was also less than half of the funds they were awarded.

“Once we got that program off the ground we were spending about $1 million a month in rental assistance which I think is phenomenal,” she said. “When we did rental assistance before COVID it was less than $200,000 a year. So spending a million a month was a huge increase in our capacity and we were just really impressed with the work our team has done and all their accomplishments.”

She also noted that she understands many people are in crisis right now as they try to recover financially from the pandemic and it is frustrating having to wait for help.

“Our team is processing applications and getting financial assistance out the door at a rate we’ve never seen before and I am really proud of the increase,” Jeffries said. “But we want to be cognizant of the fact that the need outpaces the services we provide but we are going to be here and continue to serve the customers and continue the legacy of helping people and changing lives.”

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