Food, warmth or holiday gifts? Which would you choose? Many families in Clark County sadly face this frustrating choice.
Without sufficient income, it's stressful for low-income families to get through the holiday season. Instead of a time of joy, the holidays force them to choose paying bills over holiday traditions. There are lots of ways to give back to our neighbors in need during the holidays, from food drives to gift donations, but as you ponder how best to help, consider basic needs as well.
"Federal funding has dropped along with other sources of funding for emergency heating," said Gretchen Alexander, who supervises the Community Care team for Clark Public Utilities, the group that administers low-income programs. "Right after food and shelter, water and heat are essentials for family survival. And it can be hard, especially during the holidays, for families to meet these needs."
Families living at or below 125 percent of the Federal Poverty Level spend a greater portion of their income for utilities. All told, more than 50,000 Clark County residents live on incomes below that. Of those, nearly 4,000 families live below the poverty line. Sixty percent of these are households headed by single mothers. For a family of four, this means an annual income less than $24,000.
The utility's Community Care team, ComCare for short, administers multiple low-income assistance programs, some with federal funding, that apply to all heating types, not just electric, and some that are specific to Clark Public Utilities. Most of these programs require that customers fall within specific income guidelines in order to qualify.
Income-based programs include LIHEAP, a federal program helping households at 125 percent of the poverty level with their heating bills and weatherization; the utility's Guarantee of Service Plan, which allows income-qualifying customers' to pay a monthly electric bill amount based on their household income and energy usage, and follows federal guidelines; and the senior citizen rate credit, which requires customers to be at least 62 years old with an annual household income of no more than $24,000 and provides a 50 percent credit on electric bills Jan. 1 through April 30.
Operation Warm Heart
For families that don't qualify for income-based assistance, but are experiencing financial crisis, Operation Warm Heart can help. Since 1985, the program has provided about 11,000 families with nearly $2.4 million to pay utility bills. While these people were barely making ends meet, they didn't qualify for other government programs that would help them pay their winter bills. Last winter, Operation Warm Heart distributed $200,000 to about 600 households.
Operation Warm Heart is community funded. The money for Operation Warm Heart comes from private donors, utility customers and employees, and area businesses. A typical grant is about $300.
To be a part of Operation Warm Heart, make a tax-deductible contribution by including your donation with your utility payment and note the donation amount, or write a separate check. You can also stop by any of Clark Public Utilities' customer service locations to drop off a contribution or call customer service to donate over the phone. You can even pledge a regular monthly contribution to be included on future bills.
If you know of a family in need and want to provide personal help this holiday season, gift certificates are available for purchase at Clark Public Utilities and can be applied directly to utility bills.
Customers needing utility assistance can call customer service at 360-992-3000 to find out more about available programs.
Energy Adviser is written by Clark Public Utilities. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org or to Energy Adviser, c/o Clark Public Utilities, P.O. Box 8900, Vancouver, WA 98668.