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BCAC makes adjustments to serve during virus outbreak

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PITTSFIELD - The Berkshire Community Action Council is adjusting procedures to keep providing fuel assistance and other services to aid the working poor through the COVID-19 pandemic, while still protecting its staff from exposure.

"It's very important that we remain open and distribute the fuel assistance funds before the program ends," said Deborah Leonczyk, executive director of BCAC.

She said that applications for fuel assistance and for the income tax filing service will still be processed. But the offices would be closed to the public, although staff still will be working and conducting client interviews by phone. Applications can be submitted through a drop box in the lobby and will be opened 24 hours after being dropped off, another safety precaution.

The federal Low Income Household Energy Assistance Program is designed to aid families in need with paying the cost of heat during the winter season. In response to the outbreak, there is an effort to expand the amount of money available for fuel assistance, Leonczyk said.

The proposal offered by federal lobbyists that represent community action councils nationally is seeking an additional $1.4 billion for the LIHEAP program, and another $1 billion for Community Service Block Grants, which provide flexible spending funds for emergencies to address poverty in their communities, she noted. "If folks have no or substantially reduced income for 30 days, they can apply for LIHEAP before April 30," she added."This could be a welcome resource for folks laid off due to the shutdown."

The BCAC's emergency loan program, which helps with a $500 loan and 6 months to pay it back, has extended its payback time to a year, Leonczyk said.

"We intend to continue to serve our clients as much as possible, unless a shelter-in-place order is issued," she said.

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The agency is asking any employee having health issues to self-quarantine at home, while remote meetings are being conducted via video streaming, Leonczyk noted.

All home programs, such as weatherization and home visits, have been suspended for the time being, which idles a number of contractors who do that work, she added.

She said technicians are in the process of installing large screen TVs in both the Pittsfield and North Adams offices to support the new video conferencing software. The agency is also procuring laptops for staff or board members in need, so they can participate in meetings remotely. All unnecessary agency travel has been canceled, and meetings with local partners postponed until the video conferencing is up and running.

Meanwhile, Leonczyk and her staff are trying to free up some drivers to help local pantries deliver food to hungry families.

"We know that these services are crucial to low income families and the elderly, most of who are at the greatest risk both healthwise and economically speaking," she said. "We will takes all steps we can to protect ourselves and the community."

For more information, call BCAC at 413-445-4503 in Central and Southern Berkshire County, or 413-663-3014 in the Northern Berkshires, or visit www.bcacinc.org.

Scott Stafford can be reached at sstafford@berkshireeagle.com or 413-629-4517.


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