The number of winter heating aid applications received so far has jumped 130 percent from the same time last year, according to Orange County Department of Social Services Commissioner Darcie Miller.
The Home Energy Assistance Program, or HEAP, is a federal aid program that helps eligible residents heat and cool their homes.
In November—the opening month of the winter season—1,429 people applied, compared to 615 last year.
“This is a significant increase in our first month of activity,” Miller told The Epoch Times on Dec. 9. “People are trying to pay for higher priced groceries, fuel, higher rents, and there are a lot of concerns about the costs for home heating fuel.”
“This is a difficult time for our community, and people are looking for help,” Miller said.
For residents already on government aid programs such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance and Temporary Assistance, they will get automatic pre-applications to HEAP based on eligibility—and that number has increased too, according to Miller.
Combining both, the total HEAP applications reach above 4,000.
Miller adds that the opening month typically sees the greatest number of applications and that it is still too early to predict the rest of the season.
In a typical year, the department receives between 11,000 and 12,000 HEAP applications; the federal payout, including benefits to residents and payments to the county for administering the program, stands between seven and eight million, she said.
Kerosene is sold for $8.49 a gallon at a gas station in Cuddebackville, NY, on Dec. 11, 2022. (Cara Ding/The Epoch Times)
As the interest in aid programs rises, the volume of inquiry calls also increases. One of the primary hotlines managed by the department averages 1,400 calls a day, compared to around 800 in the past seasons, Miller said.
Aside from regular benefit inquiries, she also noticed an increase in emergency calls from people who need immediate help to prevent a shutoff.
Currently, the department relies on staff reassignment and overtime to process the increased workload.
“Our community is looking for help, and we are just doing what we can to manage the influx of applications and be as supportive as we can,” Miller said. “The challenge, though, is that not everyone will be eligible.”
HEAP money is granted based on several factors, including income, household size, the primary heating source, and whether there is a household member who is under age 6, over age 60, or disabled.
A wood stove on display at Chimney Sweep Energy showroom in NY on Nov. 5, 2022. (Cara Ding/The Epoch Times)
Qualified heating sources include electricity, gas, oil, coal, propane, wood or wood pellets, kerosene, and corn.
Applicants may take a pre-application survey on the website www.mybenefits.ny.gov to determine eligibility.
County Fuel Fund
Those who do not qualify for HEAP can turn to the Orange County Fuel Fund, which has a lower income threshold than the federal program.
For example, for a family of four, the maximum monthly income is $5,485 for HEAP but $6,582 for the county program.
On Dec 1, the county legislature approved an additional $60,000 for the fuel fund, bringing the total up to $100,000.
Miller said of the legislative move, “It is their acknowledgment that people that are just a bit over eligibility are still going to have a significant need.”
Cara is an Orange County, New York-based Epoch Times reporter. You can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org