HAVERHILL — It’s been a very cold winter in New England, as Rebecca Coburn of Haverhill knows only too well.
For many Merrimack Valley households like hers that rely on heating assistance, it’s bound to get colder.
Community Action Executive Director John Cuneo said more than 1,300 households in the Haverhill, Amesbury and Newburyport area that are eligible for his agency’s Heating Assistance Program have either exhausted their entire benefit due to the harsh winter or are getting close.
With federal money running out, Community Action is asking state lawmakers to release $20 million to help offset federal cutbacks and help low-income people who have no more money available.
Cuneo said many more local households are expected to run out of heating money over the coming weeks. They include Coburn’s family.
Coburn, 22, is a single mom raising two children: A 4-month-old son with medical problems and a 2-year-old son.
Coburn said she received 300 gallons of fuel oil last winter and kept the thermostat low in her Lewis Street apartment to make it last. But when it finally ran out in January 2013, she resorted to using a space heater.
She said for this winter, she received 200 gallons in October through the Community Action program. That lasted until she received an emergency delivery of 100 gallons in last month through the city’s fuel assistance fund. Like last year, she keeps the temperature as low as possible, she said.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do when it runs out,” Coburn said. “I will call Community Action, but I don’t know what they’re going to say.”
Cuneo said that of all the households served by his agency’s heating assistance program, 75 percent have someone who is 60 or older, 5 or younger, is disabled or a veteran, or some combination of those.
Cuneo said his agency has received many calls from families worried that they will have no heat for the rest of the winter.
He said Massachusetts was allocated $135.2 million from the federal government to help families stay warm, which is about the same as last year’s allocation. However, he said this has been a much colder winter than last year and is costing about 14 percent more to heat a home.
When the temperature drops to about 20 degrees, most heating systems will remain active all day long, Cuneo said. But in less harsh weather, between 30 and 40 degrees, heating units will cycle on and off, saving valuable fuel.
Cuneo said the average family receives $205 to $950 in heating assistance through Community Action, depending on their income and heating source. Last year the average family received about $550.
“This year’s average has dropped to about $385 per household and with the cold winter, we have experienced that the funds are exhausted very quickly,” Cuneo said.
The program received nearly 5,000 applications since November and 3,400 of those have been certified as eligible to receive benefits.
“Out of those eligible households, 1,351 have already used their total benefit for the year,” Cuneo said. “In addition, there are 653 oil heat customers who have less than $150 remaining in benefits so unless they can supplement the remaining funds with at least $200 they cannot get another tank of oil.”
Cuneo said the typical minimum oil delivery is 100 gallons. At today’s cost of $3.53 per gallon they would need about $350 or more to get a delivery.
In another effort to help area families stay warm, Community Action has established an Emergency No Heat Fund to help people facing a crisis of no heat at all. Cuneo said this is the first time his agency has reached out to the public for donations to help local families keep warm.
Contributions to the No Heat Fund can be made online at CommunityActionInc.org. Checks can be sent to the CAI Emergency No Heat Fund, c/o CAI, 145 Essex St., Haverhill, MA 01832.
Community Action also participates in an oil bid program. It allows clients who are eligible for heating assistance to buy home heating oil at a discounted price. Cuneo said the lower price also applies to heating oil purchased for eligible clients by friends or family members. He said the price is about 20 to 30 cents per gallon less than the market price.
Cuneo said the state is still waiting for $13.5 million from the federal government, but when it arrives that money will be used for new eligible participants and cannot be used to supplement families who have no benefit remaining.