Federal money fills the oil tank

BROCKTON – Additional help is available for people eligible for fuel assistance, but the money will buy just one tank of oil. “That’s not going to carry them through the winter,” said Liz Berube of Citizens for Citizens, the Taunton-area agency that administers government fuel assistance programs for the needy. The $300-per-client allocation for “deliverable fuel” that is currently available to qualified clients comes from a supplemental federal fuel assistance appropriation.

However, the cost of heating oil remains at more than $3 a gallon, some 40 percent over last year and the highest ever. Berube and her counterparts throughout the state are asking the state Legislature to appropriate another $15 million to provide fuel assistance beyond February, when many families will again be faced with empty oil tanks.

The focus is on heating oil, kerosene and propane — fuels that have skyrocketed in price this year. The maximum supplemental benefit for natural gas and electric heating customers is $160. Combined with earlier federal allocations and a state allocation, the maximum benefit for heating oil is $1,165.

“Those folks who have deliverable fuels are going without heat and they have no way in heck to keep their homes warm,” said Jonathan Carlson, director of Self-Help Inc., the agency that administers government fuel assistance programs in the greater Brockton area.

The fuel assistance program is based on federal poverty guidelines and largely serves the elderly and poor, but administrators say they are seeing more young working families in need this year. “It’s just that there are so many other (financial) demands on their money,” Berube said. “They simply can’t make their heating bills.”

The situation is creating concerns about health and safety. “When they don’t have heat, they’re wearing winter coats, they’re trying to be in places that are warm,” said Carlson. “The thing that really scares us is the use of gas ovens and space heaters for heat.”

The use of alternate heating sources increase the risk of fire. And the lack of heat poses health threats, especially for children and the elderly, program leaders say. For now, Berube said, “This money is like a godsend. It at least will hold them over. It’s been tough.”

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