By John Toole firstname.lastname@example.org
---- — Administrators of New Hampshire’s fuel aid program anticipate demand will match last year.
“It’s really running about the same as last year,” said Celeste Lovett, state fuel assistance program manager.
People are still coping with hard times.
“We are seeing people are just as desperate as last year,” said Louise Bergeron, energy director for Southern New Hampshire Services. “They’re just deeper in debt.”
New Hampshire Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP, officially opens next month, but people can apply for help now.
“We are taking applications and have been since July,” Lovett said.
Lovett encourages people to apply as soon as possible.
“That keeps them, if there is an emergency, from needing it that day,” she said.
New Hampshire again has $26 million in federal aid available, though the program is operating under a continuing resolution and long-term funding will be addressed early next year once a new Congress is elected.
Demand has grown in recent years with fuel prices rising and the economy in trouble.
The Campaign for Home Energy Assistance, a national group that advocates for fuel aid for people in need, reports 35,000 New Hampshire households were served at the outset of the recession in 2008. That number had grown to more than 47,000 in 2011.
Bergeron said 6,000 people have been deemed eligible already this season in Rockingham and Hillsborough counties.
As more families needed help, total federal aid to New Hampshire has decreased. The advocacy group said New Hampshire received $47 million in fiscal year 2009.
Home heating oil prices have risen at the same time. The campaign said a gallon of heating oil cost $3.38 in January 2008, but was up to $3.76 last December. Last week the state, Office of Energy and Planning put the cost of a gallon of heating oil at $3.80.
That combination – less aid, higher prices – means the program’s money doesn’t go as far, Bergeron said.
Bergeron’s agency, which oversees aid in Rockingham County, said the program is important to the state’s vulnerable, including older residents on fixed incomes.
“I speak to people every day who are in fear – severe fear – they are so afraid they won’t get assistance and will basically freeze,” Bergeron said.
The reality for a lot of people is a choice among necessities such as heat, food and medicine, she said.
“Heat is such a basic thing in your life,” Bergeron said. “It breaks my heart to hear their stories.”
The campaign’s analysis of the New Hampshire program found 31 percent of clients were elderly, 28 percent disabled and 22 percent children under 5 years old. The average household benefit was $700.
Homeowners or renters may qualify for benefits ranging from $150 to $1,125 during the heating season. The benefits are grants. People don’t have to repay them.
Eligibility is determined by household income and size, as well as annual heating costs.
People who want to apply in Rockingham County can call 965-3029 in Derry or 893-9172 in Salem.
The New Hampshire 211 number for health and human services – dial 2-1-1 – also can put them in touch with the fuel aid program.