The US government’s shutdown is cutting off federal fuel assistance to tens of thousands of poor and elderly Massachusetts residents just as the heating season gets underway.
With billions of dollars for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP, tied up in the budget dispute in Washington, at least one of the 20 agencies in Massachusetts that administer the fuel assistance here has shuttered the program and laid off workers. Other agencies are approaching that point.
At this time of year, Action for Boston Community Development Inc., would normally use the coming federal funds to help people with past-due bills get their heat restored or keep it from getting turned off before the onset of cold weather. ABCD helps funnel heating aid to about 20,000 needy households in Boston, Brookline, and Newton.
Usually, the promise of federal funds to help pay bills allows the agency to negotiate a settlement with utilities that keeps the heat on, said John Drew, ABCD’s president. But, he said, “we can’t do that because we have nothing to negotiate with.”
Just more than $3 billion was allocated nationally to the federal heating assistance program last year. The poorest households in Massachusetts qualified for up to $1,125 in aid.
The government shutdown forced the North Shore Community Action Programs in Peabody late last week to lay off six workers and suspend its heating assistance program, which typically serves about 4,000 households.
“We sat down and did the math and realized, ‘Wow, we can’t keep operating,’ ” said Laura MacNeil, executive director, who worries what will happen when the weather starts to cool. “The first cold day, our waiting room is [usually] packed with people who need help.”
The Energy Department forecasts that heating costs for natural gas and electric customers will increase this winter as those fuel prices rise. Residents in the Northeast who heat with gas are expected to pay $1,045 on average over the winter, about 18 percent more than they did last year, according to the forecast released Tuesday. Those who heat with electricity will pay about 4 percent more, or $1,083 on average.
Heating oil customers are expected to see bills decrease slightly from last winter because of lower crude prices. But the fuel is typically the most expensive option and Northeastern customers are projected to pay an average of $2,046 this season.
The threat of high heating bills helped spur community leaders to gather Tuesday at ABCD’s Tremont Street offices, where they called on Congress to end the budget deadlock and ensure funding for LIHEAP and other social programs.
Dorchester resident John MacPherson, a World War II veteran who receives $941 a month in Social Security benefits, has received heating assistance for several years, but keeps his thermostat on a low setting and eats lots of noodles to help stretch his budget.
“If I don’t get any help from the government I’m going to freeze, I can tell you that,” MacPherson told the crowd of about 60 gathered at ABCD.
Joe Diamond, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Community Action, an umbrella organization for nonprofit agencies that administer heating assistance and other programs, said the group has asked the state to provide $20 million in heating assistance to supplement the federal program, but the additional funding has not been approved by the Legislature.
It the federal shutdown continues and state help doesn’t come soon, Diamond said, “more and more of our agencies that provide services will have to limit services or stop them completely.”
Aaron Gornstein, the state’s undersecretary for Housing and Community Development, said figuring out how to fund heating assistance and other programs affected by the shutdown is a “major concern of ours.”
“I know the governor is looking at all options,“ he said, “but no decisions have been made.”
Some local utilities are also considering how they might help.
“If there are any special circumstances this year resulting from the government shutdown, we’re available to discuss possible solutions with the agencies,” said Caroline Pretyman, a spokeswoman for NStar, which is owned by Northeast Utilities of Boston and Hartford.
Still, those who need heating assistance, like Joseph D’Ambrosia, are worried. The 90-year-old retired sneaker maker gets $704 in Social Security each month and says he’ll have to cut back on groceries to afford his winter heating bills if the government shutdown doesn’t end soon.
“It’s a tough situation,” D’Ambrosia said. “The more it’s shut down, the more people who are going to suffer, people who really depend on that money.”