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Demand is rising for energy assistance

The recent cold weather, with temperatures dipping into the teens and even single digits, is playing havoc with car batteries, icy sidewalks, and frostbite-prone skin. It has also been sending heating fuel and electrical bills soaring and increasing the demand for assistance from local social service providers.

At the Jonnycake Center in Westerly, Executive Director Elizabeth Pasqualini said a client had come in Friday morning who had no heat at home, and had left all of the faucets dripping in order to prevent the pipes from freezing and bursting.

“We were able to step in and help,” Pasqualini said.

On average, the center pays about $6,000 a month to oil and utility companies, with a maximum grant of $600 per household, she said. The money is paid directly to the vendor. The center gets a break from the oil companies, who allow Jonnycake to buy smaller quantities of fuel than they normally require.

“That’s really the oil companies stepping in to help the agencies,” she said.

The Jonnycake Center can also use the resources of its popular thrift store to help clients with heat. When donors bring in space heaters, typically over the summer, Pasqualini said, staff members put them in storage for the winter. When clients come in looking for help with heating problems, sometimes a new space heater can help. (Staff members do the same with air conditioners in the summer, she added.)

Sometimes, people use their stoves to heat their homes, which can be dangerous, Pasqualini said.

The Pawcatuck Neighborhood Center, which serves residents from Westerly to Mystic, is also seeing more people asking for heating help, said Executive Director Vicki Anderson.

The center works with three different programs that can help with heating bills: Thames Valley Council for Community Action, Operation Fuel, and Project Warm-Up. Each program has different benefits and requirements, and Anderson said the center has received more than 100 applications for assistance total from all three, as of December, and applications are still coming in.

Income eligibility limits vary based on family size, age of family members, and whether or not someone in the house is disabled, and range roughly from $23,000 to $42,000.

The center also has some of its own grant money to spend on emergency fuel assistance, Anderson said, but “not as much as we’ve had in the past.”

Anderson said she’s particularly concerned about the cold’s effects on the most vulnerable family members.

“For the very young and our seniors, we worry,” she said, adding she hopes they’re sufficiently bundled up against the cold.

The center has been keeping a rack of winter coats outside the building during the hours it is open. “If you need a coat, take a coat,” she said. “We’re here to help those most in need.”

Stonington Human Services, which serves only Stonington residents, has processed more than 300 applications for energy assistance since August, when the season opened, said manager Leanne Theodore. That’s about the same number as last year,

“Unfortunately, since the weather has been so cold, residents will use up their awarded benefit much more quickly this year,” she wrote. “Human Services continuously works to support families through these challenging times by not only offering many energy assistance programs, but also providing budget and job coaching to help residents get back on their feet and in a place of self-sufficiency.”

Prior to the January cold, the agency also saw a 31 percent increase in its December Santa Anonymous program, which gives new winter boots to eligible children.

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