For Janie Ford, inflation has squeezed an already tight budget, forcing her to juggle her bills.
“You go into the grocery store, and everything is high,” says the 77-year-old retired hospital technician from New Haven. “I have to pinch pennies, borrowing from Peter to pay Paul. I pay one account one month and another the next one.”
But thanks to fuel-assistance programs, Ford has been able to cover the rising cost of heating her one-bedroom apartment. For the past three years, she has received help from the Connecticut Energy Assistance Program, funded with a federal block grant, and Operation Fuel, a Hartford-based nonprofit charity.
“Winter gets really cold here with the snow,” says Ford, who relies on Social Security for her income. The grants—$835 a year from the assistance program and $499 a year from Operation Fuel—don’t cover her entire gas bill. “But it really helps.”
While energy costs are rising nationwide, a 2020 estimate from the U.S. Energy Information Administration ranked Connecticut’s utility prices as the sixth highest in the country. The average cost of home heating nationally is projected to increase 17.2 percent compared with last winter, the highest in 10 years, according to the National Energy Assistance Directors Association.
With the prospect of a frigid New England winter and older housing stock, many people 50 and older are worried about paying their fuel bills.
“It’s the biggest issue with our members because utilities take up a larger percentage of their fixed income” than for younger residents, says John Erlingheuser, advocacy director of AARP Connecticut. For some, that means turning down their heat to save money, despite the increased risk of extreme cold to older adults.
Help with heat
AARP Connecticut wants more people to know about heating assistance programs.
“You don’t have to be on your last penny to be eligible for these programs. They are a lot more generous than people realize,” Erlingheuser says.
A family of four can make up to $76,465 and qualify for the state’s energy assistance program. It’s based on household income and funded by the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program.
People can apply in person or by phone by contacting one of the state’s nine Community Action Agencies. (Go to cafca.org or call 860-832-9438.) In the 2021–22 program year, the initiative served 92,180 households.
But sometimes it is difficult to get older people to apply, says Deb Polun, executive director at the nonprofit Connecticut Association for Community Action. “Asking for help can be a psychological barrier for them,” she says. “We want people to know that there’s no shame. This program is designed to help you.”
The program also helps people weatherize their homes with insulation, new windows or a fuel- efficient furnace.
Operation Fuel offers up to $500 for energy and water bills. People who make 75 percent of the median state income—up to $95,502 for a family of four and $49,702 for individuals—can apply at operationfuel.org or by calling 860-243-2345.
“People forget that working families still struggle with the cost of basic needs,” says Brenda Watson, Operation Fuel’s executive director.
Cristina Rouvalis is a writer living in Pittsburgh.
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