Need for Fuel Assistance on the Rise
By David Dunbar
As the colder weather arrives, folks with low income – particularly seniors – are having trouble paying the oil, gas, and electric costs of heating their homes and apartments.
Sometimes, it comes down to a choice between heating and eating. There are government programs and local organizations that can help.
One of the most popular is the fuel assistance program offered by SMOC, the South Middlesex Opportunity Council, which is available in local communities including Bellingham, Hopedale, Medway, and Millis. Senior Centers in these and other area towns are intake sites where people can get help signing up. SMOC reports that in the fiscal year 2021, 195 clients were served in Bellingham at an average of about $1,500 each; in Hopedale there were 68, Medway had 67, and Millis had 59.
Through SMOC’s Home Energy Assistance Program (HEAP), individuals and families who qualify from 37 communities across the MetroWest can receive assistance with a portion of their home heating bill paid directly to their heating vendor. The heating season runs from November through April.
To be eligible, annual household income cannot exceed 60% of the Massachusetts estimated state median income. For example, a household of one person would have a maximum income of $42,411. For two people, $55,461; for three people, $68,511; for four people, $81,561. Benefits, which increased in December, range from $800 to $2,200. More information is available about fuel assistance at www.massgov.org
“The Millis Council on Aging (like many COAs) is an intake site for SMOC,” explains Patty Kayo, Millis COA Director. “We gather the necessary documentation for the application and send it to SMOC. We ensure that the proper paperwork is submitted so there are no unnecessary delays in procedure. So far this fiscal year, we assisted 73 residents with recertifications or new applications for assistance.”
“Each town deals with different area agencies,” says Carole Mullen, the director of the Hopedale Senior Center. “SMOC is the agency for Hopedale. We have very robust activity regarding fuel assistance applications and re-certifications. Yes, SMOC is about three months behind from clients’ date of applications. However, we can expedite ‘emergency’ situations.”
“SMOC is extremely backed up this year,” confirms Kayo. “There is a long wait for approval. SMOC’s website is a great source of information and outlines their services clearly. I would suggest if someone needs help to go directly to their website, www.smoc.org.”
Kim Cookson has been working at the Medway Senior Center for seven years and is seeing “greater demand now than ever before” for fuel assistance. She points out that all prices are way up for “heat, rent, groceries and more.”
“My office is aware of the backup in cases,” reports State Representative Mike Soter. “We have been receiving many calls and emails regarding fuel assistance applications that have been in the queue. We are doing everything that we can to expedite applications for everyone that reaches out to our office. Please do not hesitate to reach out to the office at [email protected], [email protected], or at (508) 657-4688. We would be more than happy to help in any way we can.”
“So far this year,” explains SMOC’s Amanda Foster, Division Director of Financial Assistance Programs, “we have processed about 5,000 applications and found about 2,000 eligible.” Last year, SMOC processed about 3,700 applications.
“The high prices of fuel are driving demand,” says Foster, “and we’re working our hardest to meet the demand.” If your situation is an “emergency,” then your application will be processed sooner. “Emergency” is defined by having less than 1/8 tank of oil, a “shut off notice,” or an inoperable heating system according to Foster.
Across Massachusetts, SMOC reports serving 134,000 individuals and families in fiscal year 2022. Fifty-four percent were elderly (60 years of age or more).
Here are some other sources of fuel assistance:
• Good Neighbor Energy Fund by the Salvation Army. (508) 473-0786
• Financial Assistance by the Edith Stewart Chase Foundation. (508) 422-0109
• Supportive Services for Veteran Families. 800-482-2565
• Also check out local churches and Catholic Charities.
• You might also visit www.findhelp.org to explore additional sources.