It comes as no surprise, given the glum state of the economy, that the number of Pennsylvanians who can't heat their homes is escalating.
The Public Utility Commission last week released the results of its annual Cold Weather Survey, which showed that 17,037 households lack heat, an increase of almost 19 percent over the 14,372 households without gas or electric service for their furnaces a year ago. In an additional 3,992 homes, people are using unsafe sources of heat that include kerosene heaters, kitchen stoves or ovens, electric space heaters, fireplaces and connecting extension cords to their neighbors' houses.
Most of Pennsylvania's increase was attributable to homes served by the Philadelphia Gas Works, but the number of customers affected in this region also is significant: The list includes 948 homes in the Dominion Peoples service area, 931 who would be served by Equitable Gas and 829 by Columbia Gas. Among households with electric heat, 906 served by Duquesne Light and another 265 by Allegheny Power lack power.
That's 3,879 Western Pennsylvanians who won't have essential heat in their homes just as winter starts to sting.
There is help available to those who cannot afford to pay their utility bills, but not as much as last year. Every major utility offers a customer assistance program, so low-income families may qualify for discounted rates. In addition, the Low Income Energy Assistance Program, known by its acronym LIHEAP, uses federal dollars to provide help to Pennsylvania families. This year, that program is expected to send $211 million to the state, significantly less than the $330 million allocated last year.
The result is that, where last year a more generous funding formula set the income cutoff at 210 percent of the federal poverty level, the maximum income level this year will be 150 percent of poverty. That means the income cap for a family of four will be $33,075, instead of the $44,443 of last year.
Families that are not able to heat their homes should first contact their utility company or their local public assistance office. If they are unable to reach an agreement, the Pennsylvania Utility Commission can be reached toll-free at 800-692-7380. LIHEAP applications are available by calling 866-857-7095.
Families that need assistance should request it as soon as possible. Winter has just begun, and the dollars could run out before the spring thaw.