SOUTH BEND, Ind. – JOSEPH DITS South Bend Tribune
by Joseph Dits
A less severe winter means that fewer low-income people are seeking help with their heating bills from local aid programs so far. And there’s still aid in case winter — and the size of utility bills — come roaring back in the next couple of months.
NIPSCO reports a 34 percent decrease in the number of customers who’ve qualified for its own aid programs November through January, compared with the same time frame last year. But the number of people who actually applied for the aid dropped just 18 percent.
In total, 11,692 customers have received help this winter in NIPSCO’s service territory across the northern third of Indiana, down from 17,792, said spokeswoman Denise Rodriguez.
At the United Way of St. Joseph County, the Team HEAT program served 380 households last winter, but so far it has helped about two-thirds of that number. And the program typically disburses all of its aid by February, said Cory Hankins, a spokesman for United Way.
There’s still room for about 126 more low-income households to seek help from Team HEAT, he said. And the nonprofit REAL Services is seeing about 20 percent fewer people seeking help from the Energy Assistance Program in Elkhart, Fulton, Kosciusko, Marshall and St. Joseph counties, said program director Ingrid Simmons.
“Our outreach has been the same as it has in the past,” Simmons said. “Mild winter probably has made a difference in the traffic.”
Thanks to federal and state funding, she said it has enough aid to continue taking applications through April.
Those who qualify for the Energy Assistance Program are protected from having their utilities shut off for the season. But NIPSCO’s Rodriguez points out that, just before that moratorium ends for the year on March 15, there’s always a rush of people seeking aid.
Temperatures were 3.8 degrees above average this past November and 10.6 degrees above average in December, though January was just 0.3 degrees above, according to the National Weather Service.
Compare that with last winter, when November was 6.3 degrees below average, December was 4.4 degrees above and January was 1.9 below. And remember that the winter of 2013-2014 was even colder.