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Six more weeks of winter? Members help residents survive the cold

Pam Bailey, NeighborWorks America blogger | 2/6/2018 1:31:06 PM

Punxsutawney Phil, the world’s most celebrated groundhog, scurried back into his tunnel Feb. 2. According to folklore, that means winter will continue for six more weeks—continuing a season that included a “bomb cyclone” that, in many areas, was the most frigid stretch of weather surrounding New Year’s in recorded history.

Frigid winters can cause a lot of inconvenience, but for low-income people, it often is life-threatening. Our network members have found many ways to help. Here are a few examples:

Outreach to homeless people

The number of people who are homeless is decreasing in many areas of the country, including the city of Detroit—where the “point-in-time” count in January found 2,078 people on the streets or in shelters. That’s a drop of 20 percent from 2015, due in large part to the city’s “housing-first” policy. However, there still are many individuals living on the streets, and when extremely cold weather hits, they are among the most vulnerable.

The Fox News TV affiliate in Detroit recently featured the work of NeighborWorks network member Southwest Solutions, which seeks to find these people and assure they get the help they need to stay healthy and safe.

"It can really be a matter of life and death. We took several people to the hospital last week and this week who had frostbite,” Julie Woodhouse Dressler, a team member with Southwest Solutions, told the TV station. “One person [had an] infection they're afraid will spread to his bones and result in amputation."

Dressler and her colleagues serve on a PATH (Projects for Assistance in Transition from Homelessness) team. During severe cold snaps, their priorities are more urgent and short-term than usual. Mariam Elamine, another team member, says they usually do a lot more paperwork, trying to get people benefits or into long-term housing. But when temperatures plummet, she told local public radio, “It’s survival mode. It’s all hands on deck—do what we can do to get these folks out of the cold, get them through the night, get them into shelters.”

Jamie Ebaugh, director of the nonprofit’s Housing Resource Center, explains: “We’ve been doing street outreach to the homeless for 12 years at least. Ten years ago, I was doing outreach myself and got frostbite on my knuckles. You don’t know you have it until you have it. It was like a third-degree burn; it was the most painful experience I’ve ever had.”

Initially, Ebaugh says, the organization’s work was funded by SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration), and thus its outreach focused on identifying and serving homeless individuals with severe, persistent mental illness. Two years ago, however, the city added funding to serve all others who are homeless in Detroit. The differently funded teams work together, with his organization covering all of the downtown district—with the largest number of homeless people, since that’s the best spot for panhandling—and the southwest neighborhoods. 

“It takes a special type of person to do this work,” muses Ebaugh. “You either love it really quickly or hate it. You know early on, because it doesn’t get better. You need to have a passion for impacting the lives of the vulnerable.”

In addition to its outreach work, Southwest Solutions acts as the central intake site for individuals who need to be channeled into housing, specializing in families with children and referring others to the right services.

Fuel assistance

Maine is one of the coldest states in the country. Kennebec Valley Community Action Program (KVCAP) in Waterville knows how lifesaving it is to have a warm home during the winter months.

KVCAP responds to this need through the state’s low-income heating and assistance program. The nonprofit serves as the program’s central screener, determining who is eligible among the 9,000-10,000 applications it receives annually from residents across four counties. When considering applications, it looks at household size, income and energy burden.

Eligible applicants receive direct fuel subsidies, transmitted to their supplier, with emergency deliveries available if a family’s supplies fall below an eighth of a tank and there’s no time to wait until screening and delivery are complete. In 2017, 8,072 applications were approved and 414 households received some type of emergency aid.

“It’s been a very challenging winter so far,” says Monica Grady, KVCAP’s energy and housing services director. “The phones have been really busy. The cost of kerosene is high and during the cold snap, there was a shortage as well. Between vendors having difficulty getting kerosene and increased demand across the state due to the cold, it was challenging getting fuel to people quickly. For example, last Friday, a vendor couldn’t get to a home needing emergency assistance until the following Monday. We called six vendors and no one could offer help sooner. In these cases, we counsel people about what to do: They may have to use a space heater or take jugs to a place where they can get kerosene to tide them over until the vendor can get to them.”

Furnace repair and replacement

Furnace needing replacement
KVCAP offers furnace repair or replacement as well, along with NeighborWorks network members such as PathStone Corp. in Rochester, New York—another area of the country that is no stranger to bone-chilling temperatures.

In addition to helping needy residents access the federal government’s Home Energy Assistance Program, which helps low-income and elderly people pay their winter heating bills, PathStone pairs city and state funding to repair furnaces. Scott Oliver, PathStone’s deputy for energy programs, says the nonprofit has completed more than 20 emergency repairs since the beginning of the heating season. For example, Hector Aponte and Suzette Rodriguez from the Edgerton neighborhood of Rochester had their furnace break the day before Veteran’s Day, when the temperature dropped to 19 degrees.

“We were able to secure funding overnight and get a furnace installed the next day.  They were also able to have their old water heater replaced for further energy efficiency and safety,” he reports.


Meanwhile, many NeighborWorks member organizations work around the year, but particularly during the winter, to make homes—especially those built in earlier years—more comfortable, healthy, safe and energy-efficient.

For example, Community Housing Partners (CHP) in Virginia has performed approximately 30,000 weatherization jobs over the past 40 years. During that time, techniques and equipment have evolved from simple, low-cost measures such as caulking, plastic over windows and weather-stripping for doors to the use of sophisticated diagnostic audits to determine the most energy-efficient and cost-effective whole-house approach that addresses air leaks, heating system safety and efficiency, duct leakage and insulation.

“On average, weatherized homes reduce their energy burden by 25 percent,” says CHP Vice President of Energy Solutions Mark Jackson.

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