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Changes in heating assistance guidelines will benefit more people

AROOSTOOK COUNTY, Maine — More people in Aroostook County could gain access to life-saving heating assistance this winter thanks to changes in the statewide Home Energy Assistance Heating Program, offered locally through Aroostook County Action Program.

Every year, Maine State Housing Authority receives federal funding to distribute HEAP funds to the nine community action programs in the state. In 2019, the housing authority decided to allocate extra funds toward HEAP due to increased advocacy from the community action programs and last year’s early, cold start to the winter season.

Starting this winter, a family of four could have an annual household income of no more than $51,176 instead of last year’s guideline of $37,650. Similarly, a family of three can now earn at least $42,988 while households with one or two people can earn $26,612 or $34,800, respectively. There are also income guidelines for households of five to 10 people.

“Typically, the Maine Housing Authority will shift additional funds to another energy or housing program, but this year instead of diverting the funds they will use them to keep more people warm,” said Susan Deschene, HEAP director at ACAP, on Friday, Oct. 18.

Last year ACAP processed 5,269 applications for HEAP, resulting in 4,496 households finding out they were eligible. Since the program cycle began again in September, ACAP has scheduled 1,416 appointments with people who have inquired about their eligibility for heating assistance.

With the increased income eligibility, Deschene encourages anyone who feels in need of the program to call ACAP even if they did not qualify last year.

“We’re expecting that a lot more people will qualify this year,” Deschene said.

Starting in November, households that qualify for HEAP can receive a benefit of up to $875 that will go toward their heating expenses. The amount of time the benefit lasts can vary depending on how often homeowners utilize their heating systems, but Deschene noted the funds are not meant to last the entire winter.

This year all households who are eligible for HEAP can also put their names on a waiting list for a free heat pump installation. To qualify, an individual or family must own their home and not already have a heat pump installed. ACAP staff members have been letting people know about the heat pumps during their appointments to discuss HEAP eligibility. 

Thus far 90 families are on the waiting list for heat pumps. Like with HEAP, the funding for heat pumps is coming from redirected funds from the Maine State Housing Authority.

Deschene noted that ACAP does not only accept HEAP applications during the winter months. The 2019-2020 HEAP season has been extended through mid-July 2020, allowing people to qualify for benefits earlier and to receive benefits at the start of winter 2020.

“Eighty-five percent of people who apply for HEAP end up qualifying,” Deschene said. “We see a lot of families, as well as senior citizens on fixed incomes.”

People who qualify for HEAP can also qualify for emergency heating assistance, but only if their fuel tank is an eighth full or less. ACAP receives funds for emergency heating assistance through donations from a TV telethon held every November.

Joyce Froehlich, the head receptionist at ACAP’s main office in Presque Isle, said that during the fall and winter months she usually receives hundreds of calls every day from people asking about heating assistance of some kind.

“It can be heartbreaking, especially when someone is frantic and doesn’t know if they’ll be able to get through to somebody in time,” Froehlich said.

Anyone wishing to speak to someone at HEAP assistance can contact the Presque Isle ACAP office at (207) 764-3721.

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