Protecting Our Shivering Neighbors
By marlena graves
January 3, 2012
Every year when the weather turns colder, I think of the homeless and those who are shivering inside of their homes because they can’t afford to heat them. I think of children who live in homes where there is little to no heat. For school-aged children, the school building functions as a sanctuary of warmth and provision. When a cancellation occurs on a cold day, there are consequences. It means no school lunch and staying home in an icebox, perhaps with little food and supervision because parents are working.
This year I have considerable cause for concern.
On Dec. 11, the Associated Press reported that Congress is considering making severe cuts to the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LI-HEAP). The goal of the program is to help qualifying households with at least 30 days of heat. Last year, the program served nearly 9 million households. We cannot allow this program to be cut or underfunded.
I am very familiar with the program; I used to help oversee it for three of the poorest counties in Ohio. Beginning on Nov. 1, whenever I pulled into work in the morning, I had trouble finding a parking space. By the time I walked through the side door shortly after 8 a.m., a throng of people were huddled around the front entrance and a line snaked around the corner of the building. Our office didn’t open until 8:30.
We urged our constituents to make appointments ahead of time. If they didn’t, they’d end up sitting in the lobby with no guarantee that a time slot would open up. Even so, many people without appointments chose to stay, often waiting for many hours. They stayed because they couldn’t afford the gas required for another round trip to our office or because that was the only day they could secure a ride. If constituents arrived without the necessary paperwork, we were forced to turn them away whether or not they had an appointment—unless we could somehow manage to get the information faxed to us.
I remember one day we had an especially large crowd. The door to my office was closed so that I could concentrate on double-checking the growing mountain of files on my desk given to me by my intake workers. Around lunch time, Debbie, our gracious and competent receptionist, called me in an uncharacteristic fluster because of a commotion in the lobby. An elderly gentleman (I’ll call him “Mr. Smith”) steadfastly refused to leave until he received the energy assistance he so desperately needed. The problem was that he neither had an appointment nor the necessary documentation. When I entered the lobby, Mr. Smith scowled at me, prepared for a fight. I remember being really hungry. I remember thinking that if I took Mr. Smith back to my office, I’d forfeit my lunch.
In order to diffuse the tense atmosphere in the lobby, I lowered my voice and in the kindest tone I could muster, I asked how I could help him. Thankfully, his demeanor softened as he explained his dilemma. I asked him to come to my office.
Departing from the normal script, I started our conversation by asking him if he had eaten yet. He said, “No, I don’t have any food at home.” Perhaps Mr. Smith was cranky because he hadn’t eaten. “Mr. Smith,” I asked, “would you like my egg salad sandwich?” At first he hesitated, but then he gratefully accepted my offer. While he ate and chatted with me, I managed to round up the documentation he needed and telephone the local food pantry so he could pick up a box of food.
Mr. Smith was a typical client.
The unemployed, as well as the elderly, the disabled and others on fixed incomes—including the working poor—often have to decide between food, medicine, gas and heat. There’s just not enough money to go around—especially with increased fuel prices. A bad economy only exacerbates their suffering.
I contacted my former employer, Hocking. Athens. Perry. Community Action, and they told me that last winter, they saw 4,240 households during their winter HEAP program (Nov. 1 - March 31). They also reported seeing more clients whose unemployment has run out, more families “doubling up” under one roof to save money and more senior citizens whose income doesn’t stretch far enough to cover heating costs. They’ve even seen newer kinds of cases: for example, families living in campers who are in desperate need. Unfortunately, they cannot help families living in campers because they have no official address or electric bill.
Given these circumstances, you might wonder how our churches can help. I have a few suggestions:
- Partner with urban and rural churches. There’s no doubt that poverty is staggering in the city. It’s crushing out in the country, too. There simply are not as many programs, tax dollars or churches in rural areas to offer help.
- Realize that some in your own congregation and the surrounding area probably need help and also qualify for the LIHEAP program. A family of four with an income up to $44,700 (200 percent of poverty) qualifies.
- Create a fund to assist with home energy assistance.
- Think of ways that your congregation can provide food and become a sanctuary of warmth during school cancellations. Also, consider hosting or supporting open gyms and after-school programs.
- Support your local food pantry.
- Auction off items associated with warmth, like homemade quilts or blankets, to raise money for home energy assistance.
- Become familiar with the services offered by other churches and nonprofits in your community. Partner with them. Refer others to them. It is tragic that nonprofits are struggling to survive because of the poor economy. Most have had to cut their services.
- Call your representatives to advocate on behalf of the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program.
Surely helping our shivering neighbors with heating assistance during the cold months is a practical and much needed way to be Jesus to them.
Marlena Graves is a regular contributor to Christianity Today's Her.meneutics blog and a proud member of the Redbud Writers Guild. She received her M.Div. from Northeastern Seminary in Rochester, NY, and you can find her personal blog at: http://www.hispaththroughthewilderness.blogspot.com