An agency that provides stop-gap funding to help low-income people avoid utility shut-offs is running low on cash.
Spokane Valley Community Center is about 10 clients away from a zero balance in its January emergency assistance fund because of increasing need.
Last September through December, the agency helped 407 households, 68 more than the previous year. So far this month, 66 families have sought help with their rising utility bills.
Funding to help the families is provided by grants and donations from individuals and businesses. It pays for emergency expenses that include prescriptions, rent and transportation. However, by and large, the fund thwarts utility shut-offs.
Case workers fear that frigid temperatures predicted for this week will push utility bills even higher, causing a flood of need in February.
“I think it’s going to be worse with the cold snap because this cold snap will be on their next bill,” said Sharon Hengy, energy assistance case manager for the center.
People at risk of losing their utilities receive one-time annual assistance of $100 per family. Customers of Vera Water and Power and Modern Electric Water Co. can qualify for $150 per household, because of additional grant money secured through the Seattle Foundation and partial matching funds from Modern.
The emergency payments buy enough time for struggling ratepayers to get appointments with Spokane Neighborhood Action Programs – an agency that distributes federal energy assistance funds and money from Avista Utilities’ Project Share.
While the stop-gap assistance doesn’t take a huge bite out of $200 and $300 monthly bills that are sending family budgets spiraling out of control, Hengy said it keeps people who wait too long to ask for help from ending up in the cold.
Preventing shut-offs helps families avoid utility-loss mayhem that can lead to missed work and school absences, said Spokane Valley Community Center Director Mollie Dalpae.
Last year the center distributed $61,000, Dalpae said. That huge expense sent the agency’s own budget reeling and a new fund-raiser was added to help compensate. The successful A Bow Tie Affair – a dinner with a car giveaway – netted $19,000 to defray costs.
Margaret Belote of SNAP said energy-assistance funds are stretched because 30,000 Spokane County households are poor enough to qualify for federal funds. Although not all of those people seek help, the agency only receives enough federal funds to help 9,000 housing units.
However, Avista’s Project Share provides an average of $175 in assistance for emergencies for people who might not meet federal guidelines. A handful of non-profits, such as Spokane Valley Community Center, fill in other gaps, Belote said.
“There is a bottom to all funding and it never addresses all the need.”
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