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(NECN: Peter Howe, Boston) - With temperatures in the city struggling to get out of single digits, and forecasts calling for a protracted cold snap, phones were ringing constantly and waiting lines were full at anti-poverty agency Action for Boston Community Development Thursday as people like Jackie Joseph came in desperate for help with heating oil.
"I ran out of oil four days ago – I’m trying to get fuel assistance, emergency assistance" said Joseph, a bakery worker from Roxbury. She doesn’t get paid again for another eight days and said she hadn’t been able to find a dealer willing to make a home delivery of less than about $200 worth of oil – around $150 more than she could afford at the moment.
"Right now, I just don't have that much to even fill it, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed that my paperwork goes through fast," Joseph said as she prepared to meet with an ABCD counselor and submit an application for aid.
ABCD executive director John Drew said when it comes to keeping people’s homes heated during a cold snap like this, "It is actually about life and death. It's about health. It's about safety" and making sure people aren’t using dangerous electric space heaters or leaving stoves and ovens on in a desperate attempt to get some heat flowing.
"When it hits and hits, right now, it's a natural disaster. We've got people calling us because, obviously, it's so cold, and it's imperiling life," Drew said.
Already, according to Drew and heads of other social-service agencies that distribute federal Low Income Heating Assistance funds, it appears thousands of Massachusetts residents have used up the maximum $675 to $1,125 they can get to pay for oil this winter – and there are at least 2 ½ months left of cold weather and freezing nights.
Governor Deval L. Patrick, speaking after an event at the Perkins School, said at the statewide level, LIHEAP funds haven’t been exhausted, and more funds are coming this winter from the federal government.
"The funds haven't run out, so let's not create a panic where there's no need for one," Patrick said. "We will do what we can to make sure that people stay warm and comfortable and safe during this extreme cold."
For many years, many advocates say the White House and Congress have played a cynical game of deliberately underfunding LIHEAP, so that halfway through the winter, as funds run dry and more and more people are terrified they’ll risk losing heating aid entirely, Northeastern members of Congress and the U.S. Senate can step up and appear to be heroes by winning amendments to get extra money that everyone in Washington knew all along would get funded.
But this year, for the first time, many advocates like Drew don’t think scenario will repeat itself, because of the steep "fiscal cliff" cutbacks coming March 1.
"Nobody’s stepping up to the plate in Washington, be assured of that," Drew said. "All signals are whatever you get, you’re not going to get any more … There’s no relief on the way. There's nobody going to send us anything from Washington. We're on our own out here."
Drew’s main hope for now: charitable contributions to groups like ABCD and the Salvation Army and others that fund heating assistance, and if the Massachusetts Legislature comes through with something like the $21 million in emergency state heating aid it did last year, for the first time ever.
"It will get us at least two or three or four more weeks" of heating aid for oil customers "if the state can act quickly."
Low-income heating oil and propane customers are of special concern to anti-poverty advocates because while natural gas utility customers can’t legally shut off the heat of people who haven’t paid their bills until typically March or April, for someone who relies on heating oil or propane, if they can’t get financial assistance, once the tank is empty, their home is cold.
"It's just a wait-and-see type of thing," Jackie Joseph said of her emergency bid to keep her home warm. "And they say the weather's going to be colder the next four days unless it breaks."
With videographer Scott Wholley.