The chill of winter can be offset with the pleasure of curling up inside a warm home. Turning on the heat and settling into your favorite chair to open a new book or watch a movie feels even better when snow falls or rain patters against the windows. Unfortunately, some families have to choose between paying high winter utility bills and buying groceries or gas for their cars. The necessity of food and transportation often wins.
Fortunately, there are assistance programs. One such program, the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), helps low-income households with heating or cooling costs during an energy-related crisis (such as a shutoff notice from your utility) and with weatherization improvements.
If you, a parent or a friend are struggling to make ends meet this winter, LIHEAP and similar programs might be able to help keep your home warm.
Apply as soon as you can if you think you’ll need assistance. The federal government provides the funding for LIHEAP, but the programs are run at the state level. The money gets distributed on a first-come-first-served basis and states give priority to households with children, elderly or disabled members. Often the largest benefits are awarded to the homes with the most need.
States open their winter applications at different times, and you should apply for LIHEAP right away if you think you’ll have trouble paying for heating.
LIHEAP won’t cover your entire utility bill, but it can help keep your home warm. LIHEAP’s heating benefit is only intended to help you pay to heat your home. For example, if your heating unit runs on gas, the program will contribute towards your gas bill, but not your electricity bill.
You might only be able to receive a benefit once every 12 months, but it can make a big difference for your finances. For the fiscal year 2014, the most recent data available, over 5.7 million households received heating assistance and it offset an average 45.9 percent of recipients’ annual heating costs.
Qualifying for LIHEAP assistance. States, tribes and territories have some control over the services, qualifications, aid limits and application process for the LIHEAP program in their area.
You can review each state’s income eligibility for the fiscal year 2017. The state or local organizations that distribute funds also consider applicants’ utility costs, family size and location. Renters and homeowners could be eligible for LIHEAP assistance, but you might not qualify if you have subsidized housing.
Being qualified doesn’t guarantee that you’ll get assistance. Each state receives a set amount of funds for the year, and, on average, only 20 percent of qualified households receive benefits.
How to apply for LIHEAP. Often you’ll apply for LIHEAP at a Community Action Agency (CAA), local non-profit organizations that help administer federal, state and local grant programs. Some states let you complete the application online, otherwise you may need to mail, fax or hand in an application.
The Office of Community Service’s website has contact information for each state and territory, including a link to a website where you’ll find state-specific eligibility guidelines and program information.
As part of the application process, you may need to share identifying and financial information, including:
- Recent utility bills.
- Recent pay stubs, or a profit-and-loss statement if you’re self-employed.
- Documentation for other income, such as Social Security benefits.
- A lease or property tax bill as proof of your address.
- Your Social Security number.
- A list of people living in your home, their relation to you, dates of birth and incomes.
- A copy of a utility termination notice, if you received one.
- Your energy provider’s information.
If you’re having trouble with your state’s website, or want to help someone who isn’t computer savvy, you can call the LIHEAP Clearinghouse’s National Energy Assistance Referral (NEAR) at 1-866-674-6327 (TTY: 1-866-367-6228).
Bottom line: When the temperature drops, heating costs can quickly rise. You shouldn’t have to suffer, and LIHEAP could help provide much-needed financial aid. You can look for additional assistance programs using the Benefits.gov search tool. Also look into state-based programs and payment plans or assistance from your local utility.
Nathaniel Sillin directs Visa’s financial education programs. To follow Practical Money Skills on Twitter: www.twitter.com/PracticalMoney