Murphy Vows To Fight To Keep The Heat On

By:  Allan Appel
New Haven Independent

Jasmine Sullivan, a 30-year-old single mom, lives in public housing in the Hill. She works part-time or seasonal jobs; she doesn’t have enough adequate free day care for her three young kids. So in the winter she struggles pay a $1,300 to $1,400 seasonal heating bill.

She’s experienced threats of shut-off by the utilities and several actual shut-offs over the past five years.

When that happens she said, “It’s a horrible feeling as a mom not to be able to turn on the electricity.”

Sullivan’s struggle, which she related with barely held-back tears, was precisely the kind of tale from the front lines of poor people trying to stay warm that U.S. Senator Chris Murphy was looking to collect Monday morning when he conducted a story-and-fact-finding tour at the Community Action Agency of New Haven on Whalley Avenue near Ellsworth.

He was there to call attention to the flat funding this year of the $3.3 billion Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), the primary pot of federal money through which states like Connecticut receive funding to help clients like Sullivan through the winter.

Murphy highlighted a recent report. The report found that 313,300 Connecticut households can’t afford the heat they need to keep warm during these coldest months of winter.

Sullivan’s story was one of about 100,000, Murphy said, for that is the number of people who make use of LIHEAP in the state.

CAA alone helps about 13,000 people in the Greater New Haven area avoid emergency shut-offs and partial support for bills through the November to May heating season.

While more people are being served —CAA CEO Amos Smith predicted a 10 to 15 increase in client requests for help this year — the benefits are getting smaller and smaller.

Both Murphy and Smith pointed out that working people are increasingly coming in for assistance. Even if they may be back in jobs replacing the ones they lost at the time of the Great Recession, the new jobs’ wages generally pay less. So keeping up with the basic bills becomes more of a challenge.

“It’s not hyperbole to say this is a matter of life and death,” Murphy said.

“Income is flat or declining and savings are disappearing in this state. They can’t pay their bills without this assistance,” he said; just because the price of a gallon of oil is low, the price of having gallon of heating oil delivered is not.

He said he is going back to Washington to make his case for more funding to warm-state senators of both parties, he said. The snow in the Capitol and other areas where cold is not the norm makes the time right to gather ammunition like the story of Jasmine Sullivan.

Murphy was at pains to point out that even the most generous benefits, based on income, assets and on a sliding scale, at best will cover about a third of a client’s heating bill.

In Sullivan’s case, for example, she qualifies for close to the maximum benefit during the heating period. That amounts to about $535, well less than half the cost

She is responsible for the balance, as well as any accumulated balance from the previous season, on a payment plan usually worked out by the gas or electricity company. Forgiveness is minimal; anxiety about interruption of service remains.

“If this program isn’t here, there’s nowhere to go,” Sullivan said during a conversation with the senator and reporters.

“The technical recovery hasn’t caught up to the reality of people’s lives,” Murphy said.

CAA’s Smith said the LIHEAP program works with renters as well as homeowners, with about 15 percent of the clients being homeowners.

Murphy was also gathering information about the agency’s weatherization program, for which a modest increase was granted in the federal budget. That program, like LIHEAP, also has income and asset requirements and provides benefits on a sliding scale, to between 100 and 200 clients, staffers said.