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Heat wave: federal program to help needy pay cooling bills is broke

Budget cutting means that the federal fund for helping needy Americans pay higher electric bills in the winter and summer had already run out of cash before the current heat wave hit.

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In Columbus, the center where the elderly couple was headed when they collapsed, called IMPACT Community Action, uses federal energy assistance funds to help low-income households pay their electric bills. This summer, the center has given out 136 one-time grants of $175 each.

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“It protects them through the summer months,” says Cheryl Grice, IMPACT’s director of emergency assistance. “Basically, the assistance helps to keep their utility service on.”

The federal government stipulates that the income of households that receive the energy assistance money must be no greater than 150 percent of the federal income level or 60 percent of the state median income. While the money is mainly meant to go toward heating and cooling bills, states can also use it for related programs, such as distributing free air conditioners.

A program in New York uses some of the federal energy-assistance money to provide free air conditioners to low-income households where at least one member has a health condition aggravated by extreme heat.

In New York City, during the first two weeks of the program, 4,500 people applied for 2,400 available air conditioners, says Olga Souto, a director at the Community Environmental Center, a nonprofit organization contracted to direct the air-conditioner program in the city.

“I’m sure we’re saving a lot of people’s lives,” says Ms. Souto, who added that a large share of the applicants were elderly. The center is no longer accepting applications.

Meanwhile, many elderly Americans in New York and around the country may bring in too much money each month to qualify for cooling subsidies – but barely enough to stay cool.

“I’m over what they allow by a couple of bucks,” says Annette Fields, a retired social worker who lives in Manhattan and has applied for energy assistance grants in the past.

Because she can’t afford an air conditioner for her apartment, Ms. Fields spends most days at a senior center near Times Square. There she paints, crochets, and plays piano – until it’s time to go home.

“You have to cut corners,” Fields says. “You might need an A/C, but it’s too much money.”

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