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February 13, 2014

Help sought for families with depleted fed benefits

Hundreds of households have already exhausted all of their heating funds

AMESBURY — Time is running out for thousands of Greater Newburyport families desperately hoping to keep their homes warm this winter, as they have either exhausted their federal assistance benefits or are dangerously close.

In an attempt to help those families and many more, Community Action Inc. (CAI) is lobbying Beacon Hill lawmakers to release $20 million in state funds to help supplement federal cutbacks as part of its supplemental budget.

But according to CAI executive director John Cuneo, those efforts are in trouble, as the House withdrew an amendment that would release the money. Attention now turns to the Senate, which was expected to address the issue today.

Yesterday, state Sen. Kathleen O’Connor Ives, D-Newburyport, said she and others were expected to submit a similar amendment to the budget that would include $20 million in home heating assistance.

“This really is in response to a harsh winter where there are thousands of families in the area that have depleted their heating fuel,” O’Connor Ives said. “This will be of serious assistance to them because we are far from done with winter.”

O’Connor Ives said there was precedent for the Legislature to come to the aid of families struggling to heat their homes. During last fall’s government shutdown, lawmakers approved a measure that loaned $20 million for home heating supplies and were reimbursed by the federal government once it reopened.

According to Cuneo, more than 1,000 households eligible for CAI’s Heat Assistance Program have exhausted their entire benefit due to the harsh winter and cutbacks in the federal Low Income Home Heating Assistance program. The agency expects many more households to run out of funds over the coming weeks.

The CAI Heating Assistance Program serves low-income residents who live in the Amesbury, Newburyport and Greater Haverhill area. Cuneo said that of all the households served by his agency’s heating assistance program, 75 percent have someone who is age 60 or older, age 5 or younger, or have a disabled person, a veteran or are a mix of several of these.

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