Garrett Lojek of Brooks, who has applied for federal heating assistance, won't have his intake appointment until the last week in February. He keeps his furnace set at 55 degrees and relies on his woodstove to warm up his house more than that. "I just feel bad for the people who have no other supplemental heat," he said. Credit: Abigail Curtis / AP

BROOKS, Maine — Garrett Lojek of Brooks keeps his furnace set at 55 degrees, and not because he likes it chilly.

It’s to save money on heating fuel.

Although he expects to qualify financially for federal heating assistance, his phone intake appointment with the agency that distributes Maine’s Home Energy Assistance Program funds isn’t scheduled until the last week in February.

Even though there is funding for heating oil assistance available, the bureaucratic process to obtain it is leaving some Mainers like him out in the cold as winter digs in.

“A two-month wait is life or death for some people. I’m just lucky I can keep my wood stove going … I feel bad for the people who have no other supplemental heat,” Lojek, 34, who works as a server in a downtown Belfast restaurant, said this week.

At the moment, the state’s fuel assistance program seems flush with cash. An extra $55 million from the federal government’s American Rescue Plan was allocated to Maine this winter to help with weatherization, central heating improvement programs and heating assistance.

In a typical year, Maine gets about $40 million in fuel assistance funding. This winter, thanks to supplemental funds, that sum was increased to almost $60 million. The money goes first to MaineHousing and is distributed to income-eligible Mainers through the community action programs that are contracted to allocate it. The benefits average between $600 and $900 per applicant, with the funds sent directly to the vendors that deliver No. 2 heating oil and other types of fuel to the recipients.

Although some in Waldo County may need to wait until February for their intake appointments, Donna Kelley, the president and chief executive officer of Waldo Community Action Partners, said the agency is actually ahead of where it has been in previous years.

“It’s a bottleneck process,” she said. “We’re kind of caught within the funding cycle and when the funds become available.”

In the last couple of years, community action agencies have seen increasing requests for heating aid and other help, including rent relief. But the increased need has been at least partially offset by the additional federal aid.

In the fall of 2021, heat assistance recipients who already were in the system received a bonus thanks to money that was left over from the previous spring. That additional influx of money really helped, according to Jason Parent, the executive director and CEO of the Aroostook County Action Program. In the fall, the agency usually gets a large number of emergency crisis calls from people desperate to buy more fuel. That didn’t happen this year.  

“It’s one of the things that’s been a real boon for us,” he said.

Still, folks new to the heating aid application process may have a hard time navigating through a system that is not always clear or easy. They need to apply for fuel assistance every year, and it helps to start the process early in the year.

In Aroostook County, for example, the best time to apply is in the spring, when most people are no longer thinking about the heating season.

“That’s when we have open appointment times,” Parent said.

It’s also not possible to apply online for heating assistance. Instead, people must call their local community action agency to schedule a telephone appointment at a later date. Those appointments may be weeks or even months in the future and the applicant must not forget to make the call.

And even if they receive other types of benefits, such as SNAP, that require them to verify their income with state agencies, they need to verify their income again to receive heat assistance.

Altogether, it can be a lot, especially for people who are under economic and other types of stress.

“So many of the people that we help are so frustrated and confused by the application process for HEAP assistance that they give up,” Joe Ryan, the executive director of AIO Food & Energy Assistance, a Rockland-based nonprofit organization, said. “It’s confusing. The waits are a long time. Especially for those who are nearly empty [of fuel] and will run out of heat within a day or two, and are told that their appointments are one month or two months or three months out, they give up.”

That’s not an exaggeration, either. Lynn Lugdon of Penquis CAP, which serves Penobscot, Piscataquis and Knox counties, said that if someone calls today about heating assistance, their appointment could be scheduled as far out as May.

“It is a lengthy wait,” she said, adding that the agency does have an emergency application process and other funds to help when people are really in a bind. “We don’t want anybody to be freezing out there.”

Grassroots community groups are helping to bridge the gap too. Eligible Knox County residents can receive a $300 fuel benefit from AIO Food & Energy Assistance, which helps but might not even pay for a minimum 100 gallon heating oil delivery, Ryan said.

“If you can imagine being in that position where you’re out of fuel, you don’t have money, and you hear about the HEAP program and all this heating assistance, and you just can’t get your hands on the money, it’s very frustrating,” Ryan said.

Alternatives such as wood banks can help some as well, if they have a woodstove. That’s what Lojek in Brooks has done. He has gone to the Waldo County Woodshed, a Belfast-based nonprofit, to get firewood to help him get through.

“I couldn’t be any more thankful to them,” he said.

Reducing the bureaucratic burden for those who need heating assistance and the agencies that distribute it is also worth pursuing for the future, said Sue Hamlett of Maine Equal Justice Partners, a nonprofit organization that advocates for fair public policies.

“I do think there are ways to facilitate the application, through technology, through categorical eligibility, that would make things easier for everybody, and potentially get help for people when they need it,” she said. “To sort of modernize the application process.”

That kind of change sounds good to people like Lojek.

“It’s kind of like a hamster wheel — you just go round and round in circles,” he said. “It’s bureaucratic, and that slows things down.”