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Heating assistance in jeopardy for needy
Federal grant has not been renewed this year
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Christine Hudson adjusts her thermostat at her Cooley Drive home.

Nonprofit contact numbers

Action Ministries-Gainesville:770-531-1440
The Salvation Army: 770-534-7589
The United Way of Hall County: 770-536-1121

Winters used to be a financial struggle for 90-year-old Christine Hudson.

When cold weather swept in, the Cooley Drive resident, who lives on a fixed Social Security income, had to decide whether she could afford to turn the heat high enough to keep herself warm.

"You don't know hardly how you're going to make it until it gets warm," she said.

A few years ago, Hudson read in the paper about the Ninth District Opportunity Inc., a nonprofit that provides heating assistance to Northeast Georgia residents largely through federal funding.

Without it, Hudson said, she'd be back to that difficult choice of balancing her heating bill with other needs.
"I'd be sitting here in the cold for part of the winter," she said. "You have to eat, you have other bills."

However, with federal funding getting held up in Washington this year, Shawn Howell, a program manager for Ninth District Opportunity, said the nonprofit has been forced to suspend the heating assistance program indefinitely.

While there are other programs that offer similar assistance to Northeast Georgia's residents, Ninth District Opportunity has been the largest distributor of heating assistance funds.

Howell and other community leaders worry that without federal funding, many low-income residents will struggle to pay their bills.

The Ninth District Opportunity was founded in 1967 as a regional, private nonprofit. The organization's programs have largely been funded through the federal Community Service Block Grant.

In 2010, the nonprofit paid out nearly $4.7 million in heating assistance to 13,000 households in a multi-county area, Howell said, backed primarily from the government funds.

Federal grants get regulated through the states. Georgia distributes them through regional community action groups, like Ninth District Opportunity.

This year, however, that grant has not been renewed.

The nonprofit's staff is hoping it's a matter of when the funding is coming through, not if.

"We have had times when we had less money and times we have had more money," Howell said. "This is the first time (the money) has been held back."

If the money does come, Howell said, it still could take six to eight weeks for it to get to those who need it the most.

On Nov. 1, Ninth District Opportunity opened its heating assistance program to low-income senior residents based on a verbal commitment of roughly $1.7 million, Howell said.

Typically on Dec. 1, the agency opens the program to the general low-income public. This year, they canceled that enrollment date.

"We went ahead and took the applications and filled what were promised," he said.

The group cut off applications in mid-November at 4,748 households.

Fortunately for Hudson, she signed up in time to receive assurance she'd get help this year.

Others are on a waiting list.

On Tuesday, the Georgia Public Service Commission stepped up to the address the problem by approving $10 million in heating bill assistance to low-income Georgians.

Stan Wise, the Public Service commissioner who motioned to provide the assistance, said, "The reality is that the states are getting stuck with the impacts of drastic federal cuts to the energy assistance program and there are going to be some truly needy people out there when winter heating bills start arriving."

However, according to that commission's press release, "only those customers in the Atlanta Gas Light Company distribution area are eligible" for the funds.

Bill Edge, a spokesman for the Public Service Commission, said that means low-income customers who choose one of Atlanta Gas' marketers can apply.
Atmos Energy, which serves 10,000 households in Hall, is not one of those marketers.

Atmos Energy spokesman Joel Ames said his company is also concerned about the needs of its low-income customers.

"We help fund and give additional money to Ninth District Opportunity and the Salvation Army through our Sharing the Warmth program," he said.

Still, without traditional federal funds for heating assistance coming in, local nonprofit leaders are worried about meeting the need.

Jackie Wallace, president of the United Way of Hall County, said her office has seen an uptick in phone calls from residents looking for assistance with their energy bills.

The United Way does not directly offer such services, but refers those in need to agencies that can help.

Without the Ninth District Opportunity as an option, Wallace said it has become tougher to know where to send those callers.

"It's one of those unfortunate situations when there are no answers," she said. "There's not a lot of places to refer them to right now."

She worries as temperatures get lower, the demand is going to only get worse.

Among the alternatives in Hall County are the Salvation Army and Action Ministries of Gainesville, a faith-based organization that offers temporary utility bill and rental payment for the needy.

"But funding is very limited there as well," Wallace said.

Steve Napier, director of Action Ministries, said all nonprofit groups are struggling to raise enough funds to meet demands, his included.

Annually, Action Ministries distributes about $40,000 in aid to Hall residents. Most of those funds come through donations from churches, foundations and individuals.

It's only a fraction of what Ninth District Opportunity typically gets to help Northeast Georgians.

However, Napier said his group will do its part to fill the need.

"We will field calls and do our best to respond," he said.

Though small, groups like Action Ministries do make a big difference for some.

When Venezuela Borders found herself needing help with her utility bills this fall, it was Action Ministries that lent her hand.

Borders, 27, said the ministry "really blessed me a lot."

A few months ago, Borders lost her job in poultry production. She then spent her savings, she said, while trying to support her four children.

She found herself with enough money to pay rent, but not the power bill.

"I know some people don't want to take charity," she said. "You just get to that point where you have nothing else you can do."

The people at Action Ministries, she said "were the ones who helped me out of all the people in Gainesville."
After passing the screening process, the organization helped her with some power bills until she landed a part-time job.

Borders, like Hudson, said a little help with the energy bill was essential in getting through a tough time.

The fear is that help these organizations offer won't be enough this winter.

"It's really sad," Wallace said. "It's really disheartening to think that we can't help so many people."

 

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