LEWISTON — Heating assistance officials say too few Maine seniors are getting heating help because they aren’t asking for it.

And they want seniors to ask for that help.

The Low Income Heating Assistance Program, or LIHEAP, is a federal program that helps families pay for heat. The Maine State Housing Authority receives the federal funding and passes on that money to nine community groups to distribute to families that apply.

Maine has received $33 million for LIHEAP so far this year, enough to give out an average $693 per family.

Last year, 32,000 families got help through LIHEAP. This year, the Maine State Housing Authority hopes at least 38,000 will.

But officials say too few applicants are elderly, especially considering that Maine is a cold state and it has the oldest population in the country — a worrisome combination since cold can be particularly dangerous for the elderly. Officials are encouraging seniors to apply.

“I still think there are many we’re not reaching,” said Judy Frost with Western Maine Community Action, which distributes LIHEAP money in Franklin County.

Frost and other officials say seniors shy away from the program for a number of reasons. One of the biggest: They don’t want to take a handout.

“People are really sensitive to the blaming of people on welfare,” said Betsy Sawyer-Manter, head of SeniorsPlus, a Lewiston nonprofit dedicated to helping seniors. “They don’t want to be put in that group.”

Even if they are willing to ask for help, elderly Mainers may wrongly believe they aren’t eligible for LIHEAP because their incomes are too high, they heat with something besides oil or heat is included in their rent. They may not be able to drive to the application interview and don’t ask about a phone interview instead. They may find the paperwork and documentation requirements daunting.

“If people can’t lay their hands on stuff, they just give up,” Sawyer-Manter said.

Community Concepts distributes LIHEAP money to families in Androscoggin and Oxford counties. Historically, roughly half of all applicants have been seniors. Program manager Lisa McGee would like to see that closer to 70 percent.

“We hear from a lot of people, ‘Somebody else needs it more than I do,'” she said.

When seniors do apply, she said, they’ve often been nudged into it by caretakers, someone at their town office, Meals on Wheels volunteers or family.

“Lots of family,” she said.

As they encourage seniors to apply, officials are also asking caregivers and family members to talk about LIHEAP with the elderly Mainers they know.

LIHEAP applications will be taken through April. Some LIHEAP distributors have application appointments available in January, though some are booked until February. All can provide emergency funding to eligible families that need help right away.

“My message to them is always, ‘You paid in over the years and this is just a little bit of what you paid coming back to you. Now it’s just your turn,'” Frost said.     

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To learn more about LIHEAP or to apply for heating help:

• Visit Mainehousing.org, click on the “energy” tab and go to the “LIHEAP” section.
 
• For Franklin County, call Western Maine Community Action at 207-645-3764 or 1-800-645-9636.
 
• For Androscoggin and Oxford counties, call Community Concepts at 207-795-4065 or 1-800-866-5588.
 
• For Cumberland County, call Opportunity Alliance at 207-553-5900 or 1-800-698-4959.

LIHEAP myths and facts:

Myth no. 1:  I make too much money.

Fact: Maybe not. Seniors, families with children under 2 and people who have a diagnosed medical need that makes them susceptible to hypothermia all may earn more and still qualify. Medical bills may also be factored in, making you eligible.

Myth no. 2: I don’t heat with oil, so I can’t apply.

Fact: All heat sources are eligible, including wood, gas and electricity.

Myth no. 3: I rent and heat is included, so I can’t apply.

Fact: Renters are eligible for LIHEAP, even if their rent includes heat. You’re still paying for heat, you’re just doing it through your rent.

Myth no. 4: I can’t drive to the application appointment, so I can’t apply.

Fact: Phone interviews may be arranged. Call the community group that distributes LIHEAP in your county to ask.

Myth no. 5: I need help now but I can’t get it because all the LIHEAP application appointments in my county are booked through February.

Fact: Emergency money is available. Call to ask. You may also be able to get emergency help if you’ve had a sudden crisis — like a layoff — that affected your income, even if your salary the rest of the year would have been too high to qualify.


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