With the cold of winter slowly moving in, Pennsylvanians who have a hard time paying their heating bills will soon have a helping hand.
The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) is a federal initiative, and the grants it distributes don't have to be paid back. Eligible recipients can have payments sent directly to their utility or other provider, said Harry Geller, co-director of the Pennsylvania Utility Law Project. They can get financial help when their heat is in danger of being turned off or is running low.
"It provides crisis assistance to assist in times of emergency, meaning a lack of heat," Geller said. "In some situations, where there's a heating system breakdown, it will provide assistance through what is known as the Crisis Interface Program."
The LIHEAP budget is put together conservatively, Geller said, sometimes before the federal budget is passed. That translates to fluctuations in the amount of funding, and sometimes more money is released later in the season for homes that need help.
"So, there are many years in which the program is started," he said, "and then there are either supplemental payments when the federal grants are known or at the conclusion of the program, when there may be some under-spending as a result of the conservative planning."
Geller said LIHEAP likely saves lives in Pennsylvania.
"Cold weather can cause people to die overnight from being frozen," he said. "Or, people who don't have a heating system sometimes rely on unsafe alternatives - space heaters, kerosene heaters - that can either cause fires or carbon monoxide poisoning."
Households with incomes at 150 percent or less of the federal poverty level are eligible, which equates to about $35,000 for a family of four. Last year, LIHEAP delivered about $92 million in routine heat grants to roughly 600,000 homes, and another $30 million in emergency funding to more than 100,000 homes in Pennsylvania. The LIHEAP heating season begins Nov. 4.
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