Archive for Friday, November 19, 2004

Utility assistance program overwhelmed

As winter draws near, pleas for help pour in

November 19, 2004

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Winter so far has been mild here.

But a 3-week-old assistance program is already overwhelmed with pleas from the poor for help to pay utility bills.

The Salvation Army, 946 N.H., last week turned away about 30 people who were seeking assistance with their utility bills.

"It was a sad situation," said Paula Gilchrist, the agency's social service director.

The Salvation Army is helping people pay utility bills through Gift of Warmth, a program with Kansas Gas Service.

This is the first year for the program, which provides as much as $300 for those who need help paying utility bills. But the initial $40,000 for the program, which covers 82 counties, was gone in three weeks.

"We turned in about $3,000 worth of applications from Douglas County," Gilchrist said. "We're hoping that by mid-December the funding will be back up."

The program provides one-time aid for people in counties served by Kansas Gas Service. Company spokesman Al Walker said people receiving help need not be KGS customers.

Walker said the company was hoping for contributions from its 642,000 customers; the Gift of Warmth fund is bankrolled by donations.










¢ Gift of Warmth applications are available by calling (877) 566-2769, ext. 402, or by visiting the Salvation Army, 946 N.H.Applicants must demonstrate they are in a household earning less than 200 percent of the federal poverty guideline. For a family of four that would be $37,700.Kansas Gas Service customers can contribute to the program while paying their regular bill.Contributions also can be sent by mail to Gift of Warmth, care of The Salvation Army, 3637 Broadway, Kansas City, MO 64111, or made by phone at (800) 725-2769.¢ Aquila's Warm Hearts program will take applications in January, February and March.¢ The federally funded Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program also provides assistance with utility bills. People can call (800) 432-0043 to request an application. Funding becomes available Jan. 18.

But Walker said because the program was new, it was difficult to predict customer response.

"We are soliciting contributions from our customers continuously and it's a brand-new program," he said. "As we receive more contributions, we'll pass it along."

Deborah Abner, who oversees the Salvation Army's utility fund partnerships in Kansas and western Missouri, said she thought the $40,000 in the fund would last longer.

"We just had no idea the kind of need that would be out there," she said.

Since the program began three weeks ago, 594 applications have been turned in from the 82 counties. She said 207 families received assistance, but 387 were turned away.

On Wednesday alone, Abner said about 150 people had called the hot line asking to apply or to find out when money would again be available. A waiting list isn't being kept. The funding is distributed on a first-come, first-served basis.

"We decided that would be the fairest way to do this," Abner said.

Those eligible for aid under the program must demonstrate they are in a household earning less than 200 percent of the federal poverty guideline. For a family of four that would be $37,700.

Abner said more than 50 percent of those requesting help had been dealing with a loss of income; the next largest group was elderly people living alone.

"Those two groups probably make up most of what we're seeing," Abner said. "We also are seeing a lot of younger families that are just struggling to make ends meet."




Gilchrist said other aid groups would begin taking applications for utility assistance early next year. Aquila's Warm Hearts program will take applications in January, February and March. Warm Hearts allows people to apply twice for up to $300 in assistance.

The federally funded Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program also provides assistance with utility bills. People can call (800) 432-0043 to request an application. The application, however, won't be sent until Jan. 12 or 13 because funding doesn't become available until Jan. 18.

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