FARMINGTON — Members of Poverty Busters voiced concerns about heating assistance Tuesday during a meeting with congressional representatives.

Members said some people attending the local warming centers are beginning to voice their fears about how to heat their homes next year in light of proposed cuts to the Low Income Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP. 

It was part of the message they voiced to Carlene Tremblay of U.S. Sen. Susan Collins’ office in Lewiston and Andrea Quaid from U.S. Rep. Michael Michaud’s office, also in Lewiston.

The meeting was held at the Warming Center at St. Joseph’s Church to gather information that Maine’s congressional delegation can use in Washington to continue working against the cuts.

Members reported on people whose home thermostats are never set above 58 degrees, depleted emergency heating funds in Franklin County and the Livermore Falls, Jay, Livermore area, elderly going to hospital emergency rooms with cases of near hypothermia and malnourishment, an increasing number of working poor and too few left to help. For many it has become a decision on whether to be warm or to eat, they agreed.

Poverty Busters formed about seven years ago to work on local issues of poverty, moderator Fen Fowler, executive director of Western Maine Community Action, said. Several local clergy members, WMCA staff  and community members meet regularly to make an impact on poverty.  They address issues of homelessness, heating assistance, warming centers and food pantries and discuss developing local programs.

While a lot of money was raised last fall for the ecumenical emergency heating fund Ecu-Heat, 150 households sought help early when LIHEAP funds were delayed, Pastor Susan Crane, program coordinator, said. Funds were used to support people in dire need in December and January. More people were helped this year than last, but nobody gets help till there is more in the fund, she said.

“Fifty percent of people helped are elderly; ones who worked hard all their lives but couldn’t have saved for the cost of oil tripled since 1999,” she said.

Likewise, the Tri-Town Ministry Fund has depleted its resources, spending $70,000 since 2009, Paul Gilbert of Jay said. Four people were recently turned away for lack of funding.

A member of the local food pantry board said they are also affected as people try to divide their donations between programs.

“People are generous but there are fewer people who can afford to be generous,” Bob Healy said.

The federal LIHEAP program has been around for about 35 years, Fowler said. A 50 percent cut to the $1.5 million in LIHEAP funds  received locally means $75,000 less invested in the local economy. 

As the price of fuel rises, so has the number of working poor or those who are working but having a hard time making ends meet, he said.  There’s been a shift from serving young families to serving more “established” families who have lost jobs. The use of oil and kerosene is down while the use of wood heat has more than doubled, raising issues of safety and insurance coverage, he said.

Tremblay said calls from the area are few. Whether that’s because of the good work done with these local efforts or people’s hesitation to call was discussed.

After three years of crisis, people are worn down and just stop calling, Pastor Kim Hoare said.

Quaid suggested checking to see if there were similar counterparts to these local efforts in other states, places that are cold. Both wanted updated information and stories that Collins and Michaud could share in Congress.

“If we’re going to be the canaries in the cold mine, we need to be loud canaries,” Ernie Gurney, Poverty Buster member, said.

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