Felecia Thurman, left, gets help filling out paper work from Sara Carr, intake specialist with the Pine Bluff/Jefferson County Economic Opportunities Commission, during a program to assist those in need held at the Pine Bluff Convention Center Tuesday. (Special to The Commercial/William Harvey)
Hundreds turned out for the resource fair at the Pine Bluff Convention Center that offered eligible low income individuals several forms of assistance, including help with with home heating bills.
The Pine Bluff/Jefferson County Economic Opportunities Commission hosted the event Monday and Tuesday.
EOC Executive Director David Knight said that a steady stream of people came through the doors of the banquet hall.
“We had 400 applicants Monday which is the most applications we’ve ever taken in one day,” Knight said. “That means about 600 people were served as we count one and a half people per applicant. So far today we’ve had 300 applicants.”
Knight said that the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program provided $1.6 million in total financial assistance to around 8,000 residents of the communities served by EOC in 2012 including include Jefferson, Grant, Cleveland, Lincoln and Arkansas counties.
“Our purpose here is twofold,” Knight said. “First, we wanted to bring all of the resources together that people need to fill out their LIHEAP applications. We have representatives of the Department of Human Services and the child support office here to assist people with their applications and the unemployment office is right across the street here at the Convention Center. Secondly, this resource fair is a response to the expressed desire of those who took part in the Turning the Tide on Poverty initiative last year who said that they wanted people to have easier access to services.”
“People need to provide documentation to show the income of each member of a household,” Knight said. “If someone is laid off, they need to show unemployment benefits and if they don’t receive unemployment benefits they need something in writing to show that they are not receiving them.”
Knight said that many low-income residents own older homes and others live in rental units, both of which often have very high heating and cooling bills.
“Those who live in the older homes don’t want to move because they own them and don’t have to pay rent,” Knight said. “Those living in rental units that are not energy efficient are stuck with the high heating and cooling bills because the landlords do not qualify for the assistance programs. We have people who come in with $1,000 and $2,000 monthly utility bills.”
Knight said that the LIHEAP program is augmented by the Arkansas Weatherization Assistance Program, which is intended to make the homes of eligible people more energy efficient.
The mission of the weatherization program is to reduce the monthly burden on low-income households by improving the energy efficiency of the home, according to Knight.
“The federal government cut all funding for weatherization last year so we have been relying upon other funding sources,” Knight said. “We had a little bit of leftover stimulus money that we used on the last house in October. We still had some 2011 funding that rolled forward but we finished up that money in September. The state of Arkansas places between five and 10 percent of LIHEAP funds into the weatherization program. The state will rebid the weatherization program July 1.”
Knight said that the Arkansas Weatherization Program is funded by the state’s energy companies.
“Entergy and CenterPoint Energy are the two companies that serve this area and they contribute to the program to increase the energy efficiency of residences,” Knight said.
Knight said that the goal is to get the money his agency has to offer out into the community as soon as possible so that it can circulate in the local economy.
“These are our tax dollars so we need to make sure that they are doing good right here at home,” Knight said.
Dennis Bailey, University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service agent and staff chair in Jefferson County, said that his agency was participating in order to provide helpful information to residents.
“We are here to support the work of the Economic Opportunities Commission by providing information brochures on topics including household nutrition and fire ant control,” Bailey said.
Brenet Smith serves as a community connector with the Tri-County Rural Health Network.
“We serve 15 counties in Arkansas and there are three of us who serve Jefferson County,” Smith said. “We go out into the county and meet with the elderly and adults with disabilities to find out what they are eligible for under Medicare and Medicaid.”
Carol Hayes and Carolyn Ferguson with the Area Agency on Aging of Southeast Arkansas were on hand to provide information on the programs that they offer.
“We offer a number of programs for the elderly in a 10 county area,” Ferguson said. “We let them know that we go out to clients’ homes to make sure they are being taken care of like they should be.”
Hayes said that there are several Medicare savings plans available to qualified people.
“These plans help by paying Medicare premiums,” Hayes said. “They can save up to $1,200 per year this way and for people on fixed incomes, that is a large sum of money.”