Ten days ago, New Hampshire made headlines by announcing that it would participate in Citgo’s Low Cost Heating Oil Program. Although the effort is coordinated by the Massachusetts-based nonprofit Citizens Energy Corporation, there’s no hiding the real source of this helping hand: Hugo Chavez, and the good people of Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. That New Hampshire — the feisty, libertarian-leaning state with no state sales tax, no car insurance laws, and that unforgettable license plate slogan that reads “Live Free or Die” — is willing to accept aid from leftist Latin American governments is a sign of just how desperate things may get this winter.
The cost of home heating oil has increased 80 percent in the last year, and many rural communities are in dire economic shape already. There’s a real possibility that low income families will not be able to afford enough oil to last them through the coldest months, and will have to choose between food, medicine, or a warm home.
Right now there’s no relying on the federal government. For 2009, the White House slashed the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program’s budget by 22 percent, to 1.9 billion dollars. Although a cadre of New England senators have introduced bills to more than double LIHEAP’s funding, additional support is far from assured. On Friday, Senator Judd Gregg proposed legislation that would provide an additional 2.5 billion dollars to LIHEAP, as well as funding for weatherization and home energy tax credits for the middle class. The effort promptly stalled on Saturday when the Senate voted against moving to consider the bill.
Expect to hear a lot more from Washington on this important issue — but the Congressional debate is far removed from the front line communities that are struggling to prepare for what may well be nothing short of a small-scale humanitarian crisis. Locally, town officers and state representatives are beginning to meet with charitable foundations, non-profits organizations, local church groups and home heating professionals. They’re planning public forums, organizing fundraisers, and discussing how to best allocate money. And they have a staggering amount of work to do.
At one such meeting, held in a local fire station, twenty community leaders gathered in a conference room just behind two bright ladder trucks that sparkled in the cool darkness of the station garage. The back door was propped open to facilitate airflow in the muggy July weather, and many in attendance sipped cold soft drinks, but an icy reality undercut the gathering.
The town manager spoke first. She said, by way of introduction, that the town currently has a 1,500 dollar contingency fund for heating aid — about enough money to provide 3 households with 100 gallons of heating oil each. Next, a representative from the county-wide Community Action Programs, the organization that distributes LIHEAP funds, reported to the group. She said that they had already begun to process applications for assistance in a bare bones, women-and-children-first fashion. Those deemed “most vulnerable” — the elderly, the disabled, and those with children under the age of five — could apply for aid now. After September 1st, the gates will be opened to all other households that qualify according to the low income guidelines. But the CAP won’t know until December 1st how much money they actually have to distribute from LIHEAP, leading to considerable concern about enabling people to expect support before the money is secure.
Most of the meeting centered around coordinating local organizations to raise and distribute money as a safety net for those who LIHEAP has to turn away, or who use up their assistance money and still need additional help. It seemed that there were more questions then answers. Would the Rotary Club be willing to act as a clearing house for money raised through donations and fundraisers? Would the funding be limited to residents of the town, or available to the entire county? What about needy families who live just across the border in Maine? Would the money be designated strictly for heating aid, or could it also be used to help buy food? Somebody mentioned that in the nearby village of Sandwich, the three town selectmen had each contributed 500 dollars to create ad-hoc emergency heating fund. As soon as money is taken out of the fund to help a needy member of the community, a new donor is approached to make a contribution, thereby always maintaining a 1,500 balance. Another person asked if town land could be made available to provide free firewood to those who need it. After all, dry hardwood is being advertised on the front page of the local paper for 300 dollars a cord — that itself is a record high price.
The last comment reminded me that despite the dark circumstances currently facing many Americans in the northern US, heating crises are nothing new in this part of the world. As the meeting continued, it struck me that this is what New Englanders have done for hundreds of years — come together town by town, under one roof, to figure out how they will make it through another winter. And in the end, regardless of Congressional stalling or the generosity of Hugo Chavez, that may be what gets us through the winter of 2009.
Originally published on the Huffington Post on July 27th, 2008.