Tight budgets limit low income heating assistance

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NEW YORK (AP) — With federal and state budgets squeezed by lingering economic woes, some states have set new limits on the money available to help low income residents with heating costs this winter.

For example, some states that had automatically registered those who receive food stamps for their heating assistance, have now made applying for help with heating costs a separate process. Others have imposed lower caps on the amount available per household, or stopped accepting applications for this season.

So far, the federal government has distributed about $1.7 billion for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. That amount meant cuts for 39 states and the District of Columbia compared with last year at this time. The most severe cuts were felt largely by Southern states that rely on the program for assisting residents with cooling during hot months. The other 11 states got federal funding increases.

A Department of Health and Human Services spokesman said it is unclear what might become available for the rest of the federal fiscal year.

KINDS OF HELP AVAILABLE

Both homeowners and renters may qualify for assistance. Many states offer emergency or crisis funding and periodic supplements.

Emergency funding is for those who are threatened with having their utilities shut off, have already had a shut off or are running out of fuel.

In many cases, the local agency that distributes the funds will send payments directly to the utility or service provider.

In some states, LIHEAP programs also offer assistance for energy-related home repairs and weatherization, which can reduce bills.

HOW TO QUALIFY

Each state sets its own guidelines for who qualifies for assistance. Typically, there are funds set aside for seniors, the disabled and households with children under age five; other households get in line after that.

In general, eligibility is based on the number of people in the household, total household income and the type of heating used.

Applicants are asked to provide proof of income or government assistance, recent heat and electric bills and a copy of the rental agreement if heating costs are included in rent.

Specific guidelines are posted on state websites. Links may be found on the Health and Human Services website: http://1.usa.gov/8v6wxX .

SOURCES FOR MORE HELP

If you don’t qualify for government programs or have already tapped that resource, try looking to your local community.

Many utilities offer or participate in assistance programs. Visit the website of your electric or gas supplier to find out if it funds a program.

Charitable organizations like a local chapter of the United Way, Red Cross and Salvation Army may also have money set aside to help with heating costs. Try an Internet search that includes “heating assistance” and the name of your town or city.