By Jill Harmacinski
---- — The $546 Donna Nelson received in heating assistance helped her keep the Haverhill apartment she shares with her 38-year-old mentally retarded son warm last winter.
But the lingering federal government shutdown could have a chilling effect on heating subsidies thousands of Merrimack Valley residents such as Nelson receive.
“I am more worried about the elderly than myself. They need this more than I do. It’s very hard for elderly people to keep warm. And what about people with little babies?” asked Nelson, 61, who has a back disability and difficulty walking.
The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, LIHEAP, provides heating assistance to poor families, senior citizens and the disabled. But if the government shutdown lasts until Nov. 1, when the program is supposed to start, fuel assistance will be unavailable, officials warned.
In downtown Lawrence, the LIHEAP program based at the Greater Lawrence Community Action Council last year provided $4.2 million in heating assistance to 10,800 clients from Lawrence, Methuen, Andover, North Andover and Reading. Not only is the assistance in jeopardy, but a dozen employees who work in the GLCAC’s fuel assistance divison face layoffs this week. In total, 300 people work for the GLCAC, which is based out of 305 Essex St.
“We just talked to our staff. If we don’t hear from someone in the Governor’s office or from the federal government, we will have to lay off 12 staff members on Thursday,” said Evelyn Friedman, GLCAC executive director, said.
In Boston, an official for Gov. Deval Patrick warned of “dire consequences” attached to the government shutdown, including furloughs and layoffs for workers in programs for low income families, seniors and veterans.
The state will not be able to provide heating assistance to 200,000 households, said Aaron Gornstein, State Undersecretary of Housing and Economic Development.
Gornstein called Nov. 1 “the turning point” when people will actually be denied benefits. Layoffs next week will delay the application and paperwork process for people trying to access the program, Friedman said.
Friedman said locally, LIHEAP helps senior citizens who are living on very fixed incomes handle rising energy costs. It also targets low income working people “who need the assistance so they can continue to feed themselves and pay rent,” Friedman said.
When people cannot afford heat, they will resort to dangerous electric heaters and open their stove ranges, exposing themselves to carbon monoxide poisoning, in order to stay warm, she said. “Small kids can’t tolerate cold,” Friedman also said.
Layoffs will also be tough for GLCAC workers. “Our staff is not highly paid so this will be difficult for them,” Friedman said.
Gornstein, during a meeting Wednesday, said a temporary spending bill needs to pass as soon as possible.
“It was cold last night at my house. And if you are a senior citizen relying on fuel assistance it’s going to be tough come Nov. 1 if you’re not able to get heat,” he said.
Material from the State House News Service was used in this report.
Follow staff reporter Jill Harmacinski on Twitter @EagleTribJill.