WILLMAR -- The number of people applying for home heating assistance this winter is increasing, and the program is seeing a record number of new applicants.
Just seven weeks after it started, the energy assistance program at Heartland Community Action Agency has received nearly as many applications as in the entire heating season a year ago.
As of last Thursday, the program had received 3,106 applications from people in Kandiyohi, Meeker and McLeod counties. Last year, the program processed 3,196 applications for the entire heating season.
Pat Elizondo, who heads the program, said applications often continue to come in through January. "Once it starts getting cold, it's like magic; people start coming in," she said.
The three counties have been allotted $1.3 million this year from the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. Last year, they received nearly $1.5 million.
"It is a lot of money, but when you look at the families we have, it's not a lot," Elizondo said. "With the economy the way it is, it might not be enough."
The program has a separate crisis fund of $331,000 to offer emergency help, too, but "it's not going to take us long to use up that money," Elizondo said.
People who might need assistance are encouraged to apply, even if the program is running short of money, because the federal government sometimes authorizes additional funding, she said.
So far, about $500,000 has been distributed. The average allotment per family is $605. Individual amounts are based on energy use the previous winter.
Energy assistance won't cover the full cost of heating for a winter, and it's not supposed to. "It's meant to pay a portion of it," Elizondo said.
The program provides payments directly to vendors, and the assistance is provided in lump sums for people with fuel oil or LP gas heat, so they can receive a full tank. For people with electric or natural gas heat, the allotment is sent to vendors in four monthly payments.
Nearly 1,500 of this year's applications have come from people who had never sought energy assistance before, Elizondo said.
People hit by the recession are applying for assistance in all three counties, but much of the increase is coming in McLeod County, where Hutchinson Technology Inc. had mass layoffs earlier this year.
Many of the people applying for the first time seem embarrassed, Elizondo said, and some feel like they have to justify why there have come to the Heartland offices.
"I try to tell them, 'This is part of your tax dollars at work,'" she said.
Elizondo said she understands how they feel. "It's hard for me to ask for help, too," she said.
Senior citizens are another challenging group, she said. "They'll do without before they'll ask (for help)," she said. Program workers go to nutrition sites to encourage them to apply for help.
Heartland has a separate weatherization program to help people who own their homes reduce their heating costs, Elizondo said.
Program eligibility is determined by looking at a household's gross income for the past three months, including wages and child support, and by looking at the heating consumption for the home in the past year.
Applications are available on the Heartland Web site at www.heartlandcaa.org in English and Spanish. People may also apply at the Heartland downtown Willmar office at 200 Fourth St. S.W. For more information, call 320-235-0850 or 800-992-1710.