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Low-Income Families Turn To Utility Assistance, Home Weatherization To Lower Winter Costs

For many low-income families, summer and fall have become synonymous with one thing—utility shut off season.

In Pennsylvania, utilities can’t terminate services between Dec. 1 and March 31 if a household’s income is 250 percent of the federal poverty level or below, which equates to a family of four earning $4,969 per month or less.

But for the other eight months out of the year, utilities actively pursue late-paying customers. That’s where groups such as the Holy Family Institute come in.

Every year around this time, the group gets bombarded with requests from low-income families looking for help reducing their utility payments before the onset of winter.

Michael Selep is the director of universal services for the Holy Family Institute, and he said the group aids more than 7,000 new families every year.

“All utilities will review all of those accounts that are shut off and will try one more time to make sure people have heat and have utilities,” he said. “But you could go through, and in fact, I’ve seen customers who have chosen not to have either gas or lights and have learned to survive without them.”

Selep said those in danger of losing gas or electric service should apply for customer assistance through their utility provider as soon as possible because the programs can literally be lifesavers.

“I’ve seen some customers get a nice supplement and other have a significant credit on their account where they could get through the whole winter season without having to pay a bill and then maintain their utilities and thus a safe house,” he said.

Many low-income families also turn to government funded weatherization projects to reduce utility costs.

ACTION-Housing weatherizes about 2,000 homes every year and spokesman Andrew Shull said there is an influx of requests in the fall.

“We definitely see an uptick,” he said. “I think people will apply for it year round, but when you get that first chilly day, that’s sometimes the impetus people need to send in an application.”

It costs the organization about $4,000 to weatherize a home, according to Shull, but he said replacing cracked windows, installing weather strips and door sweeps and fixing broken furnaces can reduce utility bills by as much as 20 percent.

“We look to lower energy bills [and] increase energy efficiency,” Shull said. “We really want to make sure the home is tight and that actually leads to a greater increase in comfort as well. So, of course, as the fall season starts, we’re going to see a lot of people applying.”

Low-income families must meet certain guidelines to be eligible for the program. A family of four, for example, must earn less than $47,700 a year in gross income in order to be eligible.

The Erie, PA native has been a fellow in the WESA news department since May 2013. Having earned a bachelor's degree in print journalism from Duquesne University, he is now pursuing an M.A. in multi-media management. Michael describes his career aspiration as "I want to do it all in journalism."
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