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Valerie Caroll portrait

Valerie Carroll plans to apply for funds to help pay her gas bill. The amount of money the state of Illinois will give low-income families is being reduced.

Juanpablo Ramirez-Franco

Energy assistance in Illinois may fall short without a federal boost

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Valerie Carroll takes a deep breath and makes the sign of the cross as she talks about her heating bill. A week ago her gas was disconnected. She’s four months behind on rent and owes Peoples Gas almost $1,000.

“My bill is going up, but my paycheck ain’t going up,” Carroll said. “So how do I make that work?”

Carroll, 60, is a lifelong Englewood resident and has been taking care of her disabled brother for the past five years. She’s getting ready to apply for funds from LIHEAP or the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which helps households behind on light and gas bills. But fewer households will get money this year. During the pandemic, Congress authorized temporary funds that supercharged LIHEAP benefits. This upcoming LIHEAP season, beginning in October, will be the first since 2021 without additional pandemic benefits. Funding fell to $280 million from $406 million at its peak in 2022.

“We’ve got a drop in LIHEAP funding. We’ve got significant rate increases pending,” said Karen Lusson, a senior attorney at the National Consumer Law Center. “And we’ve seen a significant increase in the number of customers in need of energy assistance.”

This past month, in Englewood alone nearly 3,000 customers received disconnection notices and over 500 were disconnected outright.

LIHEAP provides one-time payments directly to utility providers on behalf of low-income households at or below 200% of the federal poverty level, or $60,000 for a family of four. The program also provides funds for weather proofing homes and crisis assistance. All of this is available regardless of immigration status. In Illinois, the state supplements federal appropriations through a surcharge that’s built into utility rates on customer bills -- but it’s remained unchanged since 1999.

The Community and Economic Development Association (CEDA) is the local agency that distributes energy assistance in Cook County. CEDA’s vice president of energy services, Latoya Butler, said that unless something changes, families will receive less assistance.

“These dollars just won’t go as far,” Butler said. “We’re not going to be able to help as many people.”

This year the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity announced changes to the state’s LIHEAP program, including a longer program year and a staggered application period.

But it’s not just freezing winter temperatures that low-income families need to worry about. Illinois hasn’t budgeted for summer cooling assistance in years, according to Maria Castillo, Rocky Mountain Institute’s senior associate.

She said that states throughout the Midwest have traditionally forgone cooling assistance and, given the heatwaves of this past summer, may need to reconsider. Castillo said elected officials have to go big on spending.

“We think of Illinois as a place of having really cold winters,” Castillo said. “But I think with climate change and there being so much extreme heat being more likely, it really shows how these states also need to adapt.”

She calls LIHEAP an important stopgap between increasingly extreme weather and families struggling to get by.

Back in Englewood, Carroll agrees.

“We suffer in the winter from the cold. People suffer in the summer from heat strokes. So yes, they need an all year round program. Not just when it’s cold.”

In the meantime, Carroll is keeping an eye on the weather and plans to be among the first eligible families to apply for assistance when the application opens next week. Senior citizens are among the first groups to be able to apply.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Valerie Carroll.

Juanpablo Ramirez-Franco covers climate change and the environment for WBEZ and Grist. Follow him on X at @__juanpab.

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