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Beating the HEAP



It's a cool million (plus) in grant money --- and a few county legislators and advocates for the poor are searching through a procedural haystack for it.

            The grant in question is $1.5 million in federal funds that Monroe County recently received (via Albany) for the Housing Energy Assistance Program. HEAP is a federal-state-local program that's best known for --- and in this part of the country, is pretty much restricted to --- providing money from November through May to help people pay their heating bills. The benefits are distributed through Action for a Better Community, the Red Cross, and similar groups. And the program makes more than a dent. In one recent year, says a Monroe County webpage, HEAP assisted more than 50,000 local households.

            The matter of the million-and-a-half came up at the August 5 meeting of the county legislature's Human Services Committee. According to legislator Carla Palumbo, who represents parts of the city's northwest quadrant, people in attendance wanted to know if the money was available right away for benefits. Palumbo says she put the question to county Human and Health Services officials then and there. "I didn't get a clear answer," she says. "They weren't clear whether all of that money had been spent." But, she adds, "it sounded like it was money used for prior expenses up to the cut-off date, to reimburse [the county] for money spent."

            So it appears local households have already received the benefits, and the county and state are just balancing their respective books. Palumbo promises more research on the matter before next month's Human Services Committee meeting, regardless. (We sought comment from HHS officials but were referred to county communications head James Smith, who didn't return our call.)

            Some advocates for the poor have been wondering whether the money could be pumped into something needed right now: a "cooling component." As we said, New York devotes its HEAP money almost entirely for oil, natural gas, and other heating fuels. But the southern states use their HEAP money for summertime air-conditioning bills.

            And in fact, New York State laid out money for cooling just a few years ago, says Charlie Brennan, an attorney with the Albany-based Public Utility Law Project. But that, he says, was a special circumstance. The relevant federal law, he says, gives the president the option of disbursing emergency HEAP funds; and one sweltering year, Bill Clinton provided $200 million nationwide for cooling bills. That year, says Brennan, New York used its share for small, one-time grants to help people rent or buy fans or air conditioners.

            Utility bills and cut-off notices arrive year-round, of course. And the threats of cut-off seem to be coming more frequently. As Bryan Hetherington of the Public Interest Law Office of Rochester says, more low-income Rochesterians have been struggling with such things since the onset of deregulation and utility mergers.

            But HEAP's defects transcend the seasons and the regulatory fashions. Charlie Brennan explains: "The real problem is that HEAP has never provided enough money for every eligible household." In fiscal 2002-2003, he says, New York State got $170 million total from the feds for the program. Ten percent of that went for administrative overhead, he says. And another 15 percent went for the weatherization component: home insulation, weather-tight windows, and so forth. Brennan lauds the weatherization funding, saying it gives "more bang for the buck."

            Around 750,000 New York households got benefits in 2002-2003, Brennan says. This means the benefit per household wasn't very large. It also suggests why the money runs out just when people start feeling the heat.

A footnote

People also have been questioning HHS policies regarding the forms of identification that applicants for assistance must present. Specifically, it's been charged that HHS has been demanding photo IDs from people who don't have or can't get hold of such documents --- and thus discouraging or preventing these people from applying at all.

            Bob Ingram of EMPOWER Welfare Rights, a local advocacy group, passed along the relevant directions to us. And it's clear that a photo ID is not required in all instances.

            The regs say simply that "you must prove who you are" by presenting a photo ID, driver's license, or US passport (all of which have photos, of course); or two of the following: a "statement from another person" (sic), a Social Security card, a birth certificate, or a "credit card with signature."

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