In spite of the cold weather over the past month, the number of people seeking help from the federally funded heating assistance program has gone down.

Administrators are not sure why.

The future of the federally funded Low Income Heat and Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) is uncertain, but right now funds are available. An attempt last year to zero LIHEAP?funding out of the federal budget failed. In October, after pressure from legislators, including Maine Senators King and Collins, the federal government released almost all the LIHEAP?funds for this year.

Since then, LIHEAP has helped over 19,500 Maine households with heating bills and helped another 885 households with short-term emergency heat. That number is down by about 2,000 households compared to last winter, according to Deborah Turcotte, a spokesperson for Maine Housing, which oversees the LIHEAP program.

“We’re trying to spread the word that funding is available,” said Turcotte.

One obstacle to getting accepted into the heating assistance program is that people don’t bring the right paperwork when they apply.

“The list of documents you need to bring are on the Maine Housing website,” she said. They include Social Security numbers for all members of the household, proof of income for the previous three to 12 months, a rent receipt or bill that shows the address of the LIHEAP?applicant, recent copies of heat and electric bills, and the type of fuel used to heat the home.

Knox County residents seeking LIHEAP funds can apply at Penquis Community Action Program in Rockland; Waldo County residents can apply at Waldo Community Action Partners in Belfast; and Lincoln County residents can contact Kennebec Valley Comminity Action Program.

However, it takes six to eight weeks for an application to go through, so LIHEAP fuel assistance is unlikely to help in a heating emergency. Limited federal funds are also available for emergency heating fuel through a sister program: the Energy Crisis Intervention Program (ECIP). Those who qualify can get heating fuel within three days. ECIP funds are available until the end of March.

It’s not that low-income Mainers don’t need help with heat. The need for fuel assistance is clearly out there in the community, according to several food pantries in the area, even if people are not applying for LIHEAP.

Some have turned to the Area Interfaith Outreach (AIO) food pantry in Rockland, which offers food as well as emergency assistance to Knox County residents.

Unlike the LIHEAP?program, AIO?saw an upsurge in applicants for heating fuel and other emergency assistance that started back in October, according to board director Liz Jenkins.

During the last three months of 2017, AIO provided 204 heating fuel vouchers worth $35,004 — up $10,000 from the same months in 2016.

From October through the end of December, AIO also helped 28 households in danger of being evicted, kept 12 households from having their water disconnected, kept 56 households from having electricity disconnected and covered the gas for Knox County residents to reach 92 medical appointments. In total, that assistance added up to an additional $21,500.

AIO, an all-volunteer organization that was founded in 1990 by area churches so those in need could go to one place for help, is funded through donations.

“Emergency assistance is income dependent, but you don’t have to fill out 20 pages like you do for general assistance at the town office,” said Jenkins.

“This year, for the first time, we required people to make an appointment for LIHEAP before they applied to us,” said Jenkins, who is worried about having enough donations to keep the emergency program going through the rest of the winter. Jenkins said demand for help with heat does not appear to have gone down at AIO in January.

“It’s likely we will have to ask for more donations, but it’s harder after Christmas,” said Jenkins. “We get most of our donations in December.”

It can take up to eight weeks for LIHEAP to be approved, so her hope is that those seeking heating fuel help from AIO in October and November would be approved for LIHEAP by January and no longer need to rely on AIO’s help.

AIO offers 75 gallon fuel vouchers, with a $300 household cap per year. It is meant to be for emergencies only, not as a replacement for LIHEAP, which averages $854 in fuel assistance per household per year.