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As temperatures drop, here's how to access heating assistance services in Maine

Federal programs like LIHEAP and local community action partners are committed to helping Mainers with fuel assistance every winter.

PORTLAND, Maine — It’s another cold week in Maine, which means it will be another challenging few days for people who are struggling to pay heating bills. 

The pandemic has created a greater demand for basic needs, and this winter, heating assistance is becoming the primary focus for organizations around Maine.

“We’ve definitely seen an increase in the number of calls of people looking for heating assistance,” Joleen Bedard, the executive director of United Way of Androscoggin County, said. 

The United Way branches around Maine are one group that works to assist people with heating needs.

Lisa Laflin is the executive director of United Way of the Tri-Valley Area, which covers the western part of Maine. She said temperatures in her community are typically the coldest in the state.

Laflin has also seen increasing heating assistance calls from older Mainers and people making their first call out for help.

One program dedicated to fueling Mainers in need for the winter is the Low Income Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), run at the federal level. MaineHousing allocates the money the state receives every year to households that qualify. 

“Almost 40-million [dollars] comes to MaineHousing every year. That’s for fuel assistance [and] weatherization,” MaineHousing Director Dan Brenan said. “The program also provides funding for the following heating season, so it’s never too late to start thinking about your heating needs even in the middle of winter.”

The program draws 50,000 applications a year, and MaineHousing encourages folks to start their application sooner rather than later. The application process does take time, and the department added a reminder: don’t get out of the application line. Applicants need to make sure they’re signed up for the program.

If someone doesn’t qualify for that program or finds themselves in an emergency, there are places to turn.

“The need for emergency heat services is still a major concern,” 2-1-1 Program Director Nikki Williams said.

By calling 2-1-1, Mainers connect to someone from the state who can help address some different concerns, including heating assistance. Williams said her team will connect with local organizations in a callers’ area to serve their needs best.

There are, however, cases of emergency. Some people may check their oil tank and find out they are running dangerously low on fuel. Williams said it’s best practice to check fuel levels so folks can prepare for their next delivery.

If customers try to schedule an oil delivery, and the next available delivery date is weeks away, there is help available. 2-1-1 and MaineHousing understand emergencies happen, and funds are set aside for those instances.

The Project Heat Telethon is another way heating assistance in Maine is funded. On Thursday, NEWS CENTER Maine will partner with the United Way branches across Maine for the annual telethon to raise funds for the Keep ME Warm fund.

“I can tell you that Project Heat and all the efforts to keep people warm is vital to, you know, a thriving community in western Maine,” Laflin said.

“Federal money isn’t going to solve the problem. It takes other efforts like [Project Heat],” Brennan added.

Laflin said it costs roughly $600 to fill an oil tank that can last a household all winter into spring, but she added donors don’t need to send in hundreds of dollars to make a difference.

By giving anything they can, a donor will help a fellow neighbor, and a fellow Mainer, out of the cold. 

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