Photograph by Bailey Loosemore

Energy Assistance Program specialist Mary Zimmerman says her job helping low-income citizens keep warm during the winter can be heartbreaking. The SCCAP barely has enough funds to make it through the month, though additional funding is expected.

Kathyrn Shaw fiddled with her hands as she waited for her ride at the South Central Community Action Program (SCCAP) office. She had missed her appointment for the Energy Assistance Program earlier in the week and called Thursday morning to make another. They told her to come in later that day.

"When I lost all my income, I realized I needed to use the program," she said. "I was on disability for about 10 years."

Shaw took off her right-hand glove to reveal shaking fingers -- disabling rheumatoid arthritis.

In November 2009, she lost her Social Security disability payments during her five-year review.

"Now that's a story," she said. "The review had to be done on the phone; I can't travel due to my arthritis. I never got the call. They dismiss my case, remove my disability and tell me to go back to work. In the meantime, we're without income and struggling every day."
"Right now we're about 400 households ahead of where we were last year." - Christine Combs, SCCAP program manager
Through the Energy Assistance Program, low-income families apply for assistance with their heating and electric bills in the form of one-time payments. It also ensures that applicants' electricity cannot be shut off between Dec. 1 and March 15.

"For instance, in an apartment, their benefit is $365," said Christine Combs, energy assistance and family development program manager. "That goes on their bill in a lump sum. If the bill isn't that large, it rolls over till it's used up."

But for now, Combs said, SCCAP officials hope they will have enough funds to make it through March.

"Right now we're about 400 households ahead of where we were last year," Combs said.

Last year, Combs said the program assisted 5,502 households. As of last week, it has assisted more than 4,400 for the 2010-11 winter season.

"We were kind of on the verge of having to limit," Combs said. "We'd be out by the end of the month with families who already had appointments."

However, the Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority -- an organization that finances programs for low-income families in Indiana -- gave verbal confirmation that the Monroe County office will receive additional funds.

"It's still not written as to what we'll receive," Combs said. "If we don't receive anything further, we'll use what we set aside for the summer program."
"We were kind of on the verge of having to limit. We'd be out by the end of the month with families who already had appointments." - Mary Zimmerman Energy Assistance Program specialist
Energy Assistance Program specialist Mary Zimmerman, who does casework and helps with clients, said that promising money to clients that would then be recinded would most likely bother her more than it would the clients.

"There's a lot of heartbreak in this work," she said. "When you're heartbroken and you're scared, and you've got babies, you need electricity."

Zimmerman said she began working at the SCCAP in 1999 as a temporary employee but has held a caseworker position for the past six years. Since then, she said, she has seen all types of clients: from college-aged to senior citizens.

As Shaw waited for her ride, two 19-year-old girls entered the office and approached the front desk.

Like Shaw, they had missed their appointments.

"I'm so sorry," Whitney Blake told the woman at the desk. "I completely thought it was at 1:30."

As Blake spoke, her roommate Julia Lentz stood next to her.

"Do you have any questions?" the woman asked.

After looking at Blake, Lentz said, "Well, I have a trust fund. But I don't get it till I turn 21. Does that matter?"

No, the woman told her, the program is based on the past year's income only.

Lentz's mother left her the trust fund after she died, she said later as she watched Blake scan her Facebook newsfeed. The fund came with a few conditions: Lentz would receive the money at 18 if she attended school, but if not, she would not see it until turning 21.

"I lived with my grandma after she died till I was kicked out when I was 17," Lentz said. "I worked my ass off to keep my own apartment. It was this tiny little apartment that was just $200 a month."

Now, she lives off a $300 a month allowance from the trust fund and cannot find a job to pay the rest of her bills.
"Jobs are just not coming through right now." - Whitney Blake, Energy Assistance Program recipient
Blake, however, said she has been poor all her life.

"My mom doesn't have a stable living situation," Blake said. "I think we've gotten [the program] before, but I didn't know about it. And jobs are just not coming through right now."

Blake said she has used other government assistance programs, such as receiving food stamps, but she feels like she is not judged at the SCCAP program.

"Some people do apply every year," Combs said. "But we have seen an increase in new families with the downturn of the economy."

Many of the new families, like Lentz, have never heard of the program or asked for assistance, Combs said, but the program is invaluable.

"Many would not be able to make it without the assistance we provide," she said. "We've heard comments that this is the best place that people can come to and be treated with respect."

Bailey Loosemore can be reached at bloosemo@gmail.com.