Wednesday, November 26, 2008

More people need help with utilities

By Angela Patterson • THE TENNESSEAN • November 26, 2008 Last year, almost 5,000 people got help paying their utility bills from the Metro Action Commission. In just the first four months of this fiscal year, the commission has served 4,941 people with its Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, signaling a growing number of people who need help in Davidson County. As unemployment rises and temperatures drop, both the Metro Action Commission and Metro Social Services are hearing more requests for assistance, many from people who have never had to ask for help before. And while funding for these agencies and their programs is currently stable, no one knows if the amount of dollars and resources will be enough to meet the demand in the months to come. Services in demand When someone calls Metro government seeking any kind of financial help, the Metro Action Commission is the first point of contact. In addition to helping with utility bills through the assistance program, the agency also can offer aid to those who've recently lost their jobs, had an illness or gone through some other situation that has resulted in financial hardship. Most of the programs are federally funded and therefore have stringent income guidelines. To qualify for most programs, the applicant's income must be at or below 125 percent of the poverty level, which equals about a $26,500 yearly income for a family of four. To receive the once-yearly utility bill assistance, the person's utilities cannot have been disconnected. It may take four to six weeks for applicants to receive the help. The agency's public information officer, Lisa Gallon, said the staff has been seeing many more working families and seniors requesting services for the first time — people who had been able to make ends meet by themselves. Because of the increase in demand, Gallon said, federal funds are already running low for this fiscal year. "We just received word Tennessee would be getting $80 million in additional funds from the Department of Human Services for the energy assistance program, and we're anxious to see what Davidson County's portion will be," Gallon said. "We'll see in the next couple of weeks what we'll get." The Metro Action Commission also gets about $20,000 from Nashville Electric Service's energy assistance programs, as well as $350,000 from Metro government for the Community Service Assistance Program, which helps those who don't qualify for the more income-restricted programs with housing and water bills. "The federal poverty guidelines are pretty stringent, and it doesn't capture all the families who are in trouble," Gallon said. "Having those funds makes a significant impact on what we're able to do for working families. "We know that there is no cookie-cutter mold anymore for who needs help. We try to find as many resources as possible for those who are in trouble." If the Metro Action Commission can't help, Metro Social Services may be able to step in. Help with housing Metro Social Services generally works with people who don't qualify for the Metro Action Commission, or are no longer eligible. Social Services doesn't provide financial assistance, but links people in need with community partners who can lend a hand. One of the strongest relationships is with Rooftop Nashville, a consortium of 30 churches that provide housing assistance. "Most of the applications we get are for rent," said Ouida Davis Cole, who acts as a liaison between Social Services and Rooftop Nashville. "Lately we've been seeing a lot more requests for help with mortgages. Some also have utility requests; probably about a quarter ask for utility assistance." Applicants must have some reasonable justification as to why they got behind, and be able to show they'll be able to pay in the future. But it's not just those who are indigent looking for assistance. Like the Action Commission, Metro Social Services has seen many middle-class people needing help to get by. "Many people are on tight budgets, and any little hiccup could cause you to get behind," Davis Cole said. Metro Social Services Executive Director Gerri Robinson has seen the caseloads in her agency rise, and it raises concerns. "We did have a budget cut last year, and we've just tried to do more with less," Robinson said. "As for our clients, most of the job growth in Davidson County is in the service industry, and you can't do a lot on a McDonald's salary. People are paying more for food and, until recently, gas. The dollar just doesn't go as far. "I'm greatly concerned about the need for people to look to us as a safety net, especially when that net is shrinking."

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