As falling temperatures force Spokane’s poorest residents to line up for help with heating bills, the largest source of that assistance remains very much in doubt.
SNAP, the private nonprofit social services agency, has had to schedule appointments with clients seeking federal energy assistance without knowing exactly how much money will be available.
Last year, despite the uncertainty of a tense federal budget standoff between Republicans and Democrats, SNAP managed to distribute $5.4 million in Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program funds to 14,600 Spokane households.
“This year, we are at the same unsure point, but it could be even more political,” said Larry Stuckart, SNAP energy program administrator. “I think we will end up with less money than last year.”
The Obama administration has proposed reducing by nearly one-half the amount of energy assistance available to the states – the most austere of three options being considered by congressional budget negotiators.
While Washington state expects to receive $38 million in federal heating assistance, it is releasing only 80 percent of that sum out of caution.
SNAP expects to receive $2.4 million in direct assistance to low-income clients, less than 45 percent of last year’s federal energy assistance allocation. The agency hopes to begin distributing this assistance in 10 to 14 days, Stuckart said.
One thing is certain: The need will not shrink.
Last winter, SNAP helped nearly 700 more households than it ever had before, Stuckart said. The local economy shows few signs of improving.
From 2008 to 2009, the number of Washington households disconnected from service by Avista for lack of payment more than doubled from 7,777 to 15,756, according to the state Utilities and Transportation Commission. Last year, Avista disconnected 13,434 households.
SNAP already has scheduled energy assistance appointments with more than 6,500 Spokane residents. It also has begun distributing energy assistance from other funding sources, including Project Share donations and the Low Income Rate Assistance Program.
“What we are trying to do is lower people’s anxiety,” Stuckart said. “There is a lot of anxiety out there.”