Helping islanders through the lean winter months

In the winter months, gas and electric bills often skyrocket, and for those already struggling to get by, this additional expense can force agonizing choices. Often, low-income families live in older homes and rental houses or trailers without good insulation. For seniors living on a fixed income, an increase in utility bills can be devastating to their budget. When elderly, disabled or low-income Islanders pay high heating costs to keep their homes warm, they can be forced to cut back on other necessities like buying groceries or paying for medicine. For some, asking for help with finances isn’t easy. Admitting there are not sufficient household funds to pay for basic expenses, such as winter heating costs takes humility.

The Orcas Community Resource Center partners with the Opportunity Council of Whatcom County to administer the federally funded Low Income Heat and Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). The program’s intent is to assist low-income households in meeting their immediate home energy needs during winter’s heating months. In Washington State, LIHEAP helps households whose incomes are at or below 125% of the federal poverty level. This is $1,226 monthly for a single individual or $2,526 monthly for a family of four. This year, we have been approved to serve 62 households with LIHEAP on Orcas.

“Doris” is a senior citizen and an OPAL homeowner. She lives alone, receives $940 monthly income from Social Security and pays $350 each month for housing. She is struggling with health problems and recently saw her medication costs increase from $50 a month to $300. She was referred to the LIHEAP program which helped to fill her propane tank and pay her electric bill. After qualifying for LIHEAP, Doris enrolled in the Weatherization Program that paid to reinsulate part of her home, replace an aging hot water heater as well as other efficiency upgrades. Over the past few years, we have built a relationship the Doris and have helped her with ferry tickets for off-island medical appointments, food benefits, and more.

The LIHEAP program also helps hardworking low-income families cover their home energy costs that can make or break a family budget when work is sparse or faced with an unexpected crisis. “Elaine” is a single mom who came to Orcas fleeing domestic violence and lives in an older manufactured home with her two young children. Even working two jobs, she is not able to make ends meet when her electric bill spikes in the winter. She just started her second year of full-time school to become a CPA and begin a living wage career. In the meantime, she has relied on the support of the Orcas Community Resource Center and LIHEAP to get by.

When the shut off of utilities becomes a reality during the dark cold months of winter, we are so grateful for the ability to help our fellow islanders with their energy and heating costs. Now that spring has sprung, the days are a little longer, sunnier and warmer, the relief of lower heating costs is near and we can begin to set our sights on new projects.