Treasure Coast low-income families can get help with utility bills
By Lisa Bolivar Correspondent
Low-income families facing power shutoffs have a place to turn to for temporary help, thanks to a federal program and a Florida Power and Light Co. charity.
Agencies in Martin, St. Lucie, Indian River and Okeechobee counties are distributing their portion of money granted to them by the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, administered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as a mandatory block grant. This year, $4.5 billion was awarded to that grant program, each state is getting a portion of that.
“It will benefit low-income families when they meet the 150 percent of the guideline criteria,” said Cheryl Burnham, the program’s community services director for Martin and St. Lucie counties. “We try to assist if families are in need of utility assistance as long as funds are available.”
Burnham said the criteria states that applicants typically are seniors age 60 and older, disabled people and households with children age 5 and younger with income levels below the poverty line. She said she is seeing more people asking for help with utility payments than ever before.
“With the economy as it is now with companies shutting down, the need is tremendous,” and utility companies aren’t helping, she said. “We are experiencing a spike in the utility cost and for Florida alone to get a $94 million increase (in assistance program funds) dictates that Florida is right in the pocket of everything.”
The assistance program will pay utility bills once a year for those who qualify and, perhaps, a second time if there is a crisis, said Maybel Escobar of the Economic Opportunities Council of Indian River County. Her agency also administers program money for Okeechobee County as well and has been granted $700,400 for use in both counties.
She is seeing an increased need for help as well.
“Its probably four times what we normally get; the phone is constantly ringing,” Escobar said, adding they only book two weeks in advance and are trying to spread the grant money out so they can help people year-round.
Once a family has exhausted assistance program money, Escobar said, they are told to dial 211 where they can be referred to agencies such as the Salvation Army, which was given $1 million by the FPL Group Foundation, a charitable arm of Florida Power and Light Co. The $1 million will be distributed throughout 35 counties through the Salvation Army to help FPL customers pay for one month of service, said Louis Gonzalez, manager of FPL’s customer service programs.
“That is for a one-time payment of a power bill. And you’re eligible only at that point in time when the agencies that consider you at risk for disconnect in the next week or so,” he explains.
Even while Florida assistance program funds have increased, the number of people in need far exceeds the help available, Gonzalez said, and that is why FPL is reaching out for donations.
One way FPL collects money to distribute to those in need is through its employee-based Care to Share program, another way is from homeowners who donate a bit each month to the cause.
“Employees donated $50,000 this (last) year, and customer donations for 2008 were right at $350,000, that unfortunately along with the economy had decreased significantly while the need has skyrocketed,” he said.
“We encourage customers to donate to their local utility funds like Care to Share. You can donate when you are sending in your check for regular monthly payments¥…¥you can round up to the next dollar so you can donate without noticing much.”
For help with utility bills:
Indian River County: (772) 569-1030
Martin, St. Lucie counties: (800) 330-3491
Okeechobee County: (863) 357-2240
To contribute to FPL Care to Share program:www.FPL.Com.