SALT LAKE CITY — Many young children in Utah are warm enough to play with their toys instead of having to sit underneath layers of blankets, thanks to the Home Energy Assistance Target program.
Since this year's program began 12 weeks ago, 16,582 Utah residents have been helped by the HEAT program. The number of applicants is up by about 2,000 compared to the same time last year.
This year, for the first time, residents were able to apply for the heating assistance program by mail. The new mail-in program and a special telephone system for Salt Lake County both contributed to easier access for applicants and greater success for the program this year, said Gordon Walker, director of the Housing and Community Development Division.
The short-term heating assistance program, which generally receives about $22 million each year from the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, helps pay bills for people in danger of having their utilities shut off.
"We get letters that are truly heartrending about how this funding may have saved a life or certainly made life more comfortable. This is a program that really helps people when they need it the most," Walker said.
Qualified individuals receive one benefit per year — an average of $394.52 — that goes toward paying their power bills.
"It certainly wouldn’t pay everything, but it helps. We don’t want any people in poverty to be cold in the wintertime," Walker said.
The benefit is generally paid as credit with energy companies like Questar or Rocky Mountain Power. HEAT works with 194 companies throughout Utah that provide some source of power, including propane and wood.
To qualify, applicants must be at or below 150 percent of the poverty level. The program gives preference to three demographics: families with children under age 6, seniors and people with disabilities.
"It improves their daily standard of living. Instead, the elderly who, especially the ones from the Depression era that are all about conserving and saving money, can keep their thermostat at a reasonable level instead of wearing five or six layers," said Sue Kolthoff, manager of the HEAT program.
During the last fiscal year, the program serviced almost 39,000 people. An additional 6,000 applicants didn't qualify, often because they had too much income.
Kolthoff encouraged people struggling with utility bills to be proactive and contact the company. She said utility companies are "very willing" to help with options like payment plans.
While applicant numbers are up this year, Walker says the bigger picture indicates that the number of applicants is actually dropping. About eight years ago, HEAT assisted 46,000 people.
The program is advertised in the media, on community bulletin boards, in places like grocery stores and through word of mouth.
"They can call 211 and ask for the HEAT program, and they’ll be given a telephone number depending on where they are located in the state, where they can call and make an appointment," Walker said.
The state contracts with nine organizations. For Salt Lake and Tooele counties, HEAT is managed by the Salt Lake Community Action Program, which serviced 15,000 people last year.
Danny Jasperson, HEAT program manager in Salt Lake City, said the mail application gave the program a head start and it processed more than 1,000 applications before November.
"Our goal for this year is to make sure everybody that needs to get heat assistance is able to get it and in the quickest way possible," Jasperson said.
For now, the utilities program is year-round in only Weber, Davis, Morgan and Washington counties. Everywhere else, the program runs Nov. 1 through April 30. However, program coordinators are watching the demand and said there's always help if clients get in dire straights at any time of year.
An online application should be up and running in the next few months.
Jasperson said the program is making a big push to educate clients. Each person that goes in for an appointment will receive a list of energy tips, and the client will be asked to set an energy goal.
Turn off lights and unplug devices when not in use.
Use low-flow shower heads, compact flourescent bulbs and the microwave instead of the stove.
Set the thermostat between 68 and 72 degrees, and to 55 degrees when not at home.
Open the blinds during the day and close them at night to trap the heat.
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