Energy assistance application process leaves some out in the cold


By Melonie McLaurin - mflomer@civitasmedia.com



ROCKINGHAM — The Richmond County Department of Social Services began accepting general applications Tuesday for a federally-funded state low income energy assistance program.

Robby Hall, county director of social services, said the program rolled out in December, but only to senior citizens.

“LIEAP is different from our crisis intervention program,” Hall said. “If you’re income-eligible, it allows a credit within the next 30 days to be applied to whoever your energy provider is. The allotment was $287,361 for LIEAP for this year, and we’ve expended $170,400. All for seniors.”

Veronica Easterling of Hamlet, who hoped to apply Tuesday, said a line of people stood outside the DSS building when she arrived.

“With me being disabled, I can’t stand for so long or sit for so long, because I have spasms,” she said. “I needed help with my gas. When I went, they said it was only people 60 years and older or disabled. So when I went over there, the lady said, ‘We already got our 50 people, and we started at 7:30.’ So I said, ‘I have to keep coming and going back and forth everyday? Why don’t you go back to the way you used to do it? What was wrong with that?”

Easterling said that she and approximately 30 to 35 others were turned away after waiting outside, some since 5:30 a.m., in cold, damp weather.

“It used to be they would give out the applications, we bring ‘em home, fill ‘em out and bring ‘em back and they did it all right then and there,” she said. “Well, as we speak right now, I just had to borrow $260 to get gas because we’re supposed to have cold weather coming in on the weekend.”

Easterling said that when a worker in charge of letting people into the building announced they’d reached their cap for the day’s number of applicants, she requested a take-home application but was told there were none.

“The lady said they don’t use paper applications anymore,” she explained, “She told me that was too much work. And I said, ‘Isn’t that why you work here? Isn’t that why you have a job?”

Hall said paper applications do exist, but not as a stand-alone solution. All applicants must still go through an in-person screening.

“The process is set up on a first-come, first-served basis because we get a fixed allotment for the year from the state,” he explained. “We don’t have a full-time staff. We have part-time staff we run the program through, and when we get overloaded we pull from other staff. We have $116,961 left as of (Wednesday), barring whoever is being approved as we speak.”

After the part-time staff have processed all the applicants who come in each day, they begin going through the paper applications, Hall said.

“There’s no set limit of 50 people per day,” he aded. “It’s the maximum number of people they think they can possibly get to in that day. But, if during that day the money was to run out, even those who have turned a paper application back in would be denied due to the fact that the money had run out.”

Easterling said she still believes the process for applying for the program can and should be simpler.

“I feel that if they know they are going to give out assistance at the first of the year, they should start in November giving out the applications,” she said. “Once they do that, by the time January comes, they would know whether they could help that person or not be able to help that person.”

She said applying for other kinds of assistance is more convenient, especially for the elderly and disabled.

“They should have it where if they are going to pass out the application, then do it like they did the food stamps: have a place where the disabled could come and sit down,” she suggested. “They had the people at the computers to help you, and they had someone to interpret for those who couldn’t speak English. There was no limit of how many people they could let in a day. When I took my aunt up there — she’s 94 — and they said, ‘Are you disabled?’ And I said I was, and he said, ‘Well if you are, I know she is.’ And he took us right on back to a place to sit down until they called for us to come back.”

Hall said the part-time staffers working with applications are trained to carefully explain the process to those seeking assistance through the program.

“What they are hearing is that they can wait (after 50 applicants have been brought in), but there’s no guarantee they’ll be seen that day because of the high number of people,” he said. “We’re not going to turn you away for applying. You do have to have an eligibility review with an eligibility specialist, and then that is reviewed by a full-time supervisor over the program. In the event they do not want to wait, they should be given a paper application to fill out, but they would still have to sit for the eligibility review.”

Hall said while he understands it can seem like a lot of waiting, the application process will be improved in the future.

“With ePASS, very soon you can apply online,” he said. “You can already apply for food and nutrition online by going to https://epass.nc.gov. And, it also tells you what you need to bring in, because a lot of people don’t know what to bring at the time you apply. If not, your application is appended until you can come back, and after it has been held for so many days it will be denied.”

Reach reporter Melonie McLaurin at 910-817-2673 and follow her on Twitter @meloniemclaurin.

http://www.yourdailyjournal.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/web1_DSS.jpg

By Melonie McLaurin

mflomer@civitasmedia.com

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