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Tough economy brings more people in search of assistance financially

WILLMAR -- Signs of a tough economy are being seen in increased requests for services at the Heartland Community Action Agency. At the same time, federal stimulus is helping to meet some of the needs of those living in poverty.

Heartland, which serves Kandiyohi, McLeod, Meeker and Renville counties, received $3.5 million in federal stimulus money, said Deb Brandt, community outreach director.

That money is "directly passed on to our communities" to hire or retain employees and to directly to help families living in the community.

A major part of the stimulus package includes $2.8 million for home weatherization, said Dave Jones, coordinator for the program.

Last year Heartland made improvements to 76 homes in the four-county area.

This year, because of the stimulus funding, 391 homes will be weatherized to improve energy efficiency.

"That's a big jump there," said Jones.

Home weatherization includes conducting an energy home audit, adding insulation and educating homeowners about energy conservation.

Heartland is also seeing a big jump in people seeking help paying heating bills this winter.

Patricia Elizondo, coordinator for Heartland's energy assistance program, said last year 3,100 households in Kandiyohi, Meeker and McLeod counties received help paying heating costs. About half of those were in Kandiyohi County.

This year -- just three weeks into the sign-up period -- 2,651 household have already requested assistance.

Of those, 900 are "brand new applicants that have not applied before," Elizondo said. "It's an indication it's going to be a hard year for us and the families we work with."

Because it hasn't received funding yet, Heartland is negotiating with local vendors to establish a payment plan with customers until assistance arrives.

Elizondo said the average family enrolled in the program receives $500 a year in energy assistance.

Funding is also available for energy crisis situations and to repair and replace furnaces, which includes biomass sources like wood and corn stoves.

Last year, 349 children in the four counties attended Head Start. This year there are 110 children on a waiting list, with 56 Kandiyohi County children waiting to get into the program.

Heartland received $143,000 in federal stimulus funding to create or retain four positions in Head Start.

Heartland is also working to find ways to help homeless families.

In the four-county area there is an average of 45 families "imminently" in danger of becoming homeless, which means the family is one week away from being evicted or living in a vehicle. In September that number peaked at 85 families.

A new program to provide mid-term housing for two to eight months is being launched to help families who would pay 30 percent of their income for housing while searching for a permanent solution.

Rick Erickson, coordinator of Heartland's car donation program, said 63 cars were donated during the first year of the program, which started last summer. So far, 30 vehicles have been refurbished and given to families in need.

What goes around, comes around with the program, he said. A woman who recently received a car so that she could get to work at Goodwill is now picking up other employees that don't have transportation and is bringing them to work.

"It's super exciting to see what's been happening," he said.

Heartland is also participating with United Way, Willmar Area Food Shelf, Salvation Army, Evangelical Free Church of Willmar and Faith Lutheran Church of Spicer with a free food and household product distribution in November and December.

Last year 1,600 people were served at the events, said Brandt. Of those, 80 percent were working families and the remaining 20 percent were senior citizens.

During a presentation Tuesday to the Kandiyohi County Board of Commissioners, Brandt said Heartland served 12,000 individuals in unduplicated services in the four-county area last year. Of those, 5,700 were from Kandiyohi County.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for 35 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

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