In The Cold

THE PHONE HAS been ringing pretty constantly in Alice Murphy's office at the state Department of Economic Security in St. Paul. She works with the Energy Assistance program, a fund that dispenses grants of a few hundred dollars to low-income people facing the deep freeze.

Just before Christmas, the program emerged as one of the first casualties of the federal budget battle. Then Sen. Paul Wellstone made an emergency trip to the White House, telling Bill Clinton that cold-weather help wouldn't "do us any good in June." As a result, some emergency funding was released and the whole thing went away.

At least as far as the headlines were concerned. But on the ground, the crisis was postponed only until the end of this month--sooner, says Murphy, if the winter of '95-'96 keeps going at its present clip. Because the last-minute funds amount to little more than half last year's level, checks are averaging less than $200; last year, a comparatively mild winter, they ran $375 on average, and even that was far less than what most applicants needed.

What's more, notes Murphy, 40 percent of those using the program rely on "delivered fuels." For them, $200 will buy at best half a tank of gas or oil. And to top it all off, the program this year isn't offering emergency relief for people whose furnaces break down or spew carbon monoxide.

The consequences, says Pam Marshall of the low-income advocacy coalition Energy CENTS, are hard to calculate precisely, but easy to guess. Some counties are already putting together emergency plans to shelter people who must leave home as their fuel runs out. Some 70 percent of Energy Assistance recipients are working families and seniors; how many of them will lose their homes as heating bills put the final strain on fixed or falling incomes is hard to tell, Marshall says. Nor is it possible to pinpoint which, if any, of a growing number of house fires are related to "alternative sources of heat" like electric space heaters.

Marshall and Murphy were among those who testified before a hearing of the state Senate Jobs, Energy, and Community Development Committee two weeks ago. Its chairman, Sen. Steve Novak (DFL-New Brighton), says he called the pre-legislative session meeting to see whether the state should pitch in with something like $25 million of its budget surplus.

But even if such an appropriation passed and were signed by the governor, it would provide only short-term relief, Novak acknowledges, since "there isn't any hope that federal support will get any greater." There's been some talk of the gap being made up by charities like HeatShare, to which utility customers can contribute through their bills. Right now, HeatShare has a total of less than $1 million to spend for the entire state; Energy Assistance is short about $30 million.

For now, says Murphy, agencies statewide are still taking applications for this year's grants (for information, call 800-657-3805). But they're already beginning to hear from people whose checks are running out, and who have nowhere else to turn. "It's been a pretty crummy winter," she says as she picks up another phone.

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