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Help with utility bills is critical despite mild winter weather

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 11, 2012 - More than 500 volunteers showed up at Hardee's restaurants across the region one Friday morning last month, greeting customers and accepting donations for a good cause. The donations and proceeds from the sale of warm biscuits with sausage and eggs that morning went to help seniors, disabled and low income Missouri and Illinois residents cover their winter utility bills.

This is an annual ritual in St. Louis. What's different this year is that the winter has been mild, leading some prospective donors to assume the demand for heating assistance isn't high. Groups that help people keep warm during winter months say the extra sunshine  in no way overshadows the large numbers of families still struggling to pay exceptionally high utility bills. The situation isn't helped by the fact that states got less federal assistance this year to help people pay their overdue heating bills.

The Hardee's Rise and Shine fundraiser is sponsored each February to support Heat-Up St. Louis, a regional program. All the money it raises through donations is used to supplement the utility assistance the needy get from utilities and from the federal low income home energy assistance program, or LIHEAP. It is run locally by the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis.

By the time the six-hour Hardee's fundraiser ended at 11 a.m., the event had raised $95,000. Not bad, since it was 10 percent more than the amount raised a year earlier.  However, this good news is offset by Heat-Up's overall donations being down by about 40 percent -- $400,000 this year, compared to $900,000 a year earlier, says Gentry Trotter, founder of Heat-Up and president of  MultiMedia PR Group.

"That's because the winter has been mild, and some people are assuming that there is less of a need for utility assistance," he says. "When it's cold, the donations flow. But it's hard to pitch helping people during warm winter weather."

The drop in donations has a direct impact, Trotter says, because Heat-Up relies on its board to cover overhead expenses and uses all of its donations for direct services to those in need. The hope, Trotter says, is that the Hardee's fundraiser will help Heat-Up "make it through the end of April" when the winter campaign ends. At that point, his group and others will begin gearing up to help the needy keep cool during summer months.

Energy assistance groups also have been required to get by with a lot less money from the federal government. Missouri got $96 million in LIHEAP funding during the previous fiscal year, but only $68 million during the current fiscal year.

LIHEAP for St. Louis used to be run by the Human Development Corp. It folded last year due to financial problems. The state then chose the local Urban League to manage the program. On Tuesday afternoon, the intake room at LIHEAP office at the Urban League in midtown was far from crowded, but the program director, Jennelle James, says that looks, like the mild winter weather, can be deceiving.

"The number resistering for assistance is down 15 percent," she says, then produces a breakout of the number registering for assistance. Those numbers make clear how overwhelming the demand can be for assistance even during a mild winter. This winter, more than 17,000 registered for assistance compared to about 20,000 during the winter of  2011.

The Urban League has tried to accommodate people more effectively by offering more services.

"We're bringing much more comprehensive  services to our clients. We're not only providing LIHEAP but are making homes more energy efficient by making sure the homes" are less drafty. "It's a win-win situation."

Brenda Wrench, chief operating officer of the Urban League, says this weatherization program has been as important as assistance.

"We've been working nonstop since October," she says. "But there still are a lot of people needing help. I think (the mild weather) is a blessing for all the people we've helped. But it's not easy to get a $3,000 utility bill paid, and LIHEAP doesn't pay all of  it."

That makes the Heat-Up St. Louis program important because it helps the needy cover a portion of the utility cost that might not be covered by LIHEAP or by utilities. Both Ameren UE and Laclede Gas have their own programs to help offset some of the energy expenses for the needy.

Wrench says the challenges are especially difficult on the North Side where some "people might have (overall) energy bills as high as $5,000" because the "heat is just going out of the homes in the winter." That's why she stresses the value of weatherization, in addition to heating grants, saying the insulation can tranalate into lower energy bills.

The Urban League didn't have a lot of time getting the energy assistance program up and running. It began work last October with a $4 million contract from the Department of Social Services. LIHEAP money is funneled through the state agency, which then distributes it to local groups to manage the program.

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.

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