Heating fuel assistance hampered by COVID-19



ELLSWORTH — While spring may be optimistically around the corner, this winter has been marked by bitterly cold days, making home heating even more critically important for Mainers.  

That has been a challenge for some this winter, who experienced backlogs in waiting for fuel assistance due to complications from COVID-19. 

Those complications included employee shortages — those who fell ill with COVID or had to quarantine — at community action programs (CAPs) like Downeast Community Partners (DCP). 

DCP, along with other CAPs in the state, is contracted through MaineHousing to administer its heating assistance program, the Home Energy Assistance Program, known commonly as HEAP. 

To process applications for HEAP, applicants will call DCP, set up an appointment and complete the application, which includes providing income verification. DCP can then certify the application before sending it to MaineHousing for its review and approval of funds for fuel vendors, DCP Executive Director Rebecca Palmer explained. 

That final step — the delivery — also ran into challenges caused by COVID, said Scott Thistle, communications director for MaineHousing. 

Like many industries, fuel vendors experienced workforce problems and were awaiting waivers to exceed overtime hours set by federal laws regarding moving hazardous materials, Thistle said. 

Those waivers were put in place federally to meet delivery demands during the pandemic.  

Additionally, Palmer reported that, thanks to employees working overtime and from home if they were in quarantine, DCP has caught up with its backlog of applications. 

Meanwhile, DCP, other CAPs and MaineHousing are working to limit application delays in post-pandemic times, too. 

Two major changes proposed by MaineHousing for 2023 include an online pre-application to expedite the application process and categorical eligibility, Thistle said. 

That eligibility would allow folks who can receive supports such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and MaineCare, among others, to not have to prove their income eligibility for HEAP to save on processing times. 

While federal rules require an annual application, MaineHousing is in talks with the state’s congressional delegation, Thistle said, all of whom are reportedly very responsive to the issue of home heating. 

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) sits on a subcommittee that helps write the HEAP budget, Thistle said. 

“She’s very well-positioned and she’s long championed the HEAP program.” 

Changes proposed by DCP and the CAPs working together also include implementing categorical eligibility. Palmer explained this could also mean that HEAP-approved applicants would be approved for other social supports and a weatherization program so that homes receiving assistance will obtain that heat efficiently.  

Another change the CAPs are advocating for is adjusting the application and staff training schedule for HEAP so that there will be more time to take calls for applications. 

Because HEAP is designed to be carried out throughout the year, both Thistle and Palmer note it is not a crisis service, but it can feel as if it operates that way, especially when Mainers desperately need heat and need it fast. 

There are other funding opportunities to help with emergency situations, such as The Heating and Warmth fund at DCP. 

Thistle advises that if HEAP applicants have been scheduled for an appointment in the spring — after their energy crisis will pass — “They should not give up.” 

Folks should maintain that appointment and get their application processed for the next season and work with CAPs to address their immediate needs. 

“That means they might not find themselves in crisis next year,” Thistle said.  

To help make changes to HEAP, Downeast Community Partners and the other CAPs are participating in the HEAP rule process with the Maine State Housing Energy Department. 

“Our goal is to collaboratively identify how to establish the best and most efficient practice and policies for the HEAP program throughout the state,” Palmer said. 

A HEAP Working Group meeting occurred on Feb. 17.  

Next steps include distributing a summary of proposed changes to the MaineHousing Board of Commissioners on March 8 and a meeting of the board on April 19 to seek approval to start the rulemaking process. 

A public hearing will then be held on May 17 before HEAP applications and trainings commence in the summer. 

 

 

Rebecca Alley

Rebecca Alley

Reporter at The Ellsworth American
Rebecca is the Schoodic-area reporter and covers the towns of Eastbrook, Franklin, Hancock, Lamoine, Sorrento, Sullivan, Waltham, Winter Harbor and Trenton. She lives in Ellsworth with her husband and baby boy who was joyously welcomed in June 2020. Feel free to send tips and story ideas to [email protected]