With Little Assistance, Vermonters Struggle To Keep Their Heat On

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(Host) The federal low income heating assistance program, commonly known as LIHEAP, has had a lot of ups and downs this year. Funding levels are below what they were last year, even though the state’s congressional delegation was able to pump another $5 million into the program.

As VPR’s Sarah Harris reports, even with that help, many Vermonters are still struggling to keep their heat on this winter.

(Harris) Lorinda Bushey can’t just crank up the thermostat when it gets cold. Heating’s not that easy.

(Bushey) "I’ve got it down to a science I have to run the heat so low so that we don’t run out of fuel prematurely before the assistance stops. I work around my house in long johns and sweat shirts."

(Harris) Bushey and her family of five live in St. Albans. They’ve been on heating assistance since the 90s. They use gas heat and a couple of space heaters.

(Bushey) "The thermostat is either off or it never goes above 60 degrees. With my home and the way that it’s laid out with five people in it, I use exactly five gallons of fuel a week and that’s just for hot water and showers."

(Harris) Five gallons of fuel a week isn’t very much. But the heating assistance program doesn’t have enough funding to supply people with an adequate amount of fuel for the whole winter.

Travis Poulin runs the heating assistance program at the Community Action office in St. Albans. He says this year has been the hardest yet.

(Poulin) "At the same time that prices of home heating fuel have steadily risen over the past three or four years, the amount of funding that’s available from the federal government to help low income working families pay for heating fuel has gone down every year for the past three years."

(Harris) And it’s not just prices that are going up. This year the Community Action office saw a huge increase in people applying-and qualifying-for heating assistance. The initial funding was so low that it wasn’t enough to even pay for a minimum delivery of home heating for some Vermonters.

Poulin says the newest infusion of funds will help people get through the next few weeks or so. But it won’t last the entire winter, or alleviate some big challenges.

(Travis) "I think a lot of people make very difficult choices that most of us would never want to make around what bills to pay and when. And it gets very dangerous when folks get to ‘should I pay off my electric bill, should I buy food or get a minimum delivery of home heating."

(Harris) In St. Albans, Lorinda Bushey is no stranger to these choices. She says she’s worried about how they’ll make it through the rest of the winter.

(Bushey) "We’re just struggling to make ends meet on a week-to-week basis and we live day to day."

For VPR News, I’m Sarah Harris in St. Albans.

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