Bond, Clinton, Marion and Washington Counties, IL- Imagine being without heat on a frigid winter day or having no air conditioning or fan to alleviate the sweltering temperatures of summer. This is what happens when your utilities are cut off because you can’t afford to pay your bills. Thousands of Illinois families know exactly how this feels because they’ve been there. Fortunately, they haven’t experienced this situation since they received assistance from the state’s Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP).
Illinois’ most vulnerable residents could again be in danger of losing their utilities if LIHEAP funds are redirected to the General Revenue Fund, as proposed in the state’s FY2016 budget. The $165 million state LIHEAP fund sweep would stop thousands of LIHEAP payments that are made on behalf of low income households. Additionally, the Percentage of Income Payment Plan (PIPP) would be eliminated entirely. This program helps low-income families budget for their expenses by ensuring that their utility payments are 6 percent of their household incomes- the percentage most families spend on utilities. The PIPP program builds on individual responsibility and helps families climb out of poverty. The proposed sweep would essentially leave low-income senior citizens, persons with disabilities and families with children under the age of 6 without vital utilities.
“LIHEAP is a critical component of the safety net for many of our state’s underserved populations who are struggling in this economy,” said Dalitso Sulamoyo, Ph.D., President and CEO of the Illinois Association of Community Action Agencies. “I worry that our families without utilities will get evicted from their homes. LIHEAP helps them keep their utilities and prevents them from becoming homeless. By chipping away at this program, the state makes it harder for our families who are trying desperately to get out of poverty.”
The debate in the General Assembly about the fate of LIHEAP funds comes at a time when more than 70 counties have run out of both federal and state funding two months earlier than projected.
“This is a double whammy for our families. The lack of funding means that our agency will not be able to help almost 733 families as we look ahead to the hottest months of the year, and since the moratorium on shut offs ended in April, we have many people who have lost their utilities entirely until the fall,” said Sue Castleman, executive director of BCMW Community Services.
“Some have to choose between basic needs. For example, a senior citizen may have to decide whether to buy his prescription medications or pay his electric bill. A single mom may have to choose between buying food and paying for her utilities. LIHEAP removes the stress of having to choose and helps our families focus on improving their quality of life.”
At BCMW, we hear stories everyday from our clients about how life-changing LIHEAP has been for them. For example:
• A single mother, unable to work due to caring for a son who is on a ventilator 24 hours a day, needed help clearing up a utility bill to get her service transferred following being burned out of a rental home.
• A young couple new to the area with three children, one of the children with downs syndrome needed help with getting their power back on; the family is now working and stable.
• A senior citizen was in the hospital and facing utility disconnection. BCMW Community Services was able to make a LIHEAP payment on his account and avoid disconnection, so he was able to return home from his hospital stay and concentrate on getting well instead of how he would stay warm.
An Illinois law requires regulated utilities to charge their customers a small fee to fund LIHEAP. And, the money the utilities collect is intended to be used for LIHEAP and not the general revenue fund. LIHEAP, which includes state and federal funds, serves less than 40 percent of Illinoisans who meet the requirements of the program. There already is not enough money for the people who need it most, and, if state funding is eliminated, many Illinoisans will fall deeper into poverty said Sulamoyo.
“We realize that tough decisions have to be made to balance our budget. We need to develop a budget that truly strengthens the safety net and protects our most vulnerable people,” said Sulamoyo. “Illinois’ budget should be a common sense budget that is not balanced on the backs of the poor. Shared sacrifice must include those at the top; only then will Illinois have a budget that is fair.