For some, early cold already has exhausted federal fuel assistance benefits

Preite Oil transport driver and heating technician Bobby Lemieux refills a home's heating oil tank in North Adams on Wednesday.

PITTSFIELD — The recent cold snap has already sapped the federal fuel assistance benefits of some recipients, leaving them facing hard choices as another Berkshire County winter unfolds.

"We have more than 300 families that have already exhausted their benefit," said Tammy Biagini, fuel assistance director at the Berkshire Community Action Council. "For some, they have to choose between paying for heat, food or medicine because they can't afford to pay for all three."

While Congress has funded the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program at the same level — about $5.6 million locally — as last year, the need is expected to be greater than last winter, Biagnini said.

Since sign-ups began Nov. 1, Biagini noted, 6,269 have applied for fuel assistance at BCAC. Of those, 5,676 qualified. By this time last year, 3,959 had been served. Last winter, a total of 7,295 families received fuel aid.

More than 45 percent of those served are elderly residents on fixed incomes, Biagini added.

In order to qualify, an applicant would have to make less than $34,380 annually in a household with one occupant. For two people in a home, they would have to make less than $44,958 combined to qualify for heating assistance. Household income for a family of four would have to be less than $66,115 to receive aid.

"They come in on a daily basis upset and in panic mode," Biagini said. "You can see it in their eyes. We deal with that every day all over the county."

The benefit received depends on the size of the household and the amount of gross annual income. The program ends April 30.

While utilities are prohibited from shutting off service from November to April, many working families face shutoff of utilities when spring rolls around. And deliverable energy sources, such as heating oil, propane or wood, absent a purchase contract, normally require upfront payment before delivery.

"We see a lot of people in crisis mode, unsure what to do when they are facing utility shutdown for failure to pay," Biagini said. "They come in and they're out of oil or wood and there is no way to buy more."

Low-income families working two or more jobs to support their children know this is an especially tense season, because many are doing all they can to stay afloat and support their families. But when winter comes along, that often becomes a losing battle.

"For the working poor in crisis who have a family to support, it's literally either food or fuel," Biagini said. "We have limited resources, and we have emergency funds that we try to focus on seniors and households with small children. We're going to do the best we can to keep them warm this winter."

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