Monday, June 16, 2008

Summer relief all dried up

from The New Journal Deleware, written by reporter Robin Brown.

There will be no help this summer from a federally funded program that once gave out millions of dollars a year in cooling assistance to the state's working poor, elderly and disabled.

The reason is simple.

There's no money.

It all went to winter aid.

What's left is limited state aid for those most in need, officials say, and some charity help.

Whatever is there can't come soon enough, says Shirae Aikens-Mowbray of Bear, a 36-year-old mother of two teens.

Unable to work after a crippling back injury, she said, "The disability check I receive won't cover the bills ... and the gasoline prices kick butt."

She has been seeking help at churches and service programs, but said she would have applied for state help already -- if she had known it was available.

"Right now, we're going hit-and-miss ... and we're misinformed," she said. "I'm hanging in there, but you don't know who to go to for help."

For decades, the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program has helped poor, elderly and disabled Americans pay winter heating bills and, in recent summers, cooling costs.

In 2006, more than 15,000 Delawareans got federal winter aid through the program, News Journal files say. About $3 million in summer grants helped about 11,000 residents that year.

Annual federal grant money comes to the Delaware Energy Assistance Program through the state-run Division of State Service Centers, which contracts with the nonprofit Catholic Charities to handle its administration, applications and grants.

The policy is that money not used in winter aid rolls over for summer.

The state's official Web site describes its Summer Cooling Assistance Program, and tells potential recipients, "It is important to call Catholic Charities to find out where and how to apply for assistance."

Calls to listed offices will be less than encouraging.

A recorded message at the New Castle County site, for example, says nothing about the program, except, "There will be no summer program."

A message on a program leader's phone says, "If you're calling about help with your electric bills, our program has no funds available at this time."

Neither directs the needy to other sources of possible help.

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