WASHINGTON – By time they come to Adine Oney for help paying their heating bills, people have often already exhausted all their resources and appealed to all their friends.
The people Oney interviews for the Maryland Energy Assistance Program do not have to make the program their last resort but they often do, she said, because pride is an issue.
“It’s really hard for them to come here, but I let them know that this is their tax money” that funds the program, she said.
Oney can sympathize: She is one of the 60,000 Marylanders who get energy assistance from the state.
The $255 annual heat grant that she receives through MEAP helps her to budget her heating costs alongside rent, groceries and the many other bills that come with being a single mom raising two daughters, ages 13 and 7.
Before she started her part-time job at the Baltimore County home energy office, Oney was unaware that MEAP benefits were available to her. She had been stretching her budget by living with her sister.
Program analyst Ralph Markus concedes that public awareness is the biggest challenge for MEAP administrators. The program is currently being promoted through posters at senior centers, low-income housing developments and on the sides of buses.
Applications are typically taken at area home energy offices or through the mail. In special circumstances — such as when an applicant has limited mobility or English language skills — MEAP workers will make house calls.
Markus is also aware of the stigma that Oney’s clients and others like them face in asking for assistance. He finds that there is a lack of sympathy for people who have worked hard and are still struggling to stay on top of basic expenses.
“I think that a lot of middle-class people do not understand the life circumstances of low-income people — whether it’s health problems or bills — it runs the gamut,” he said.
Oney said her clients include single parents and people who are working but cannot make ends meet. More and more these days, she said she is seeing people who were laid off from their jobs.
She always sees a number of elderly people whose budgets are dominated by the costs of their prescription medications.
Across the state, people in similar situations apply for MEAP assistance at one of about 20 local energy assistance agencies. Most are run through county human services departments. A handful of religious organizations also offer energy assistance, although most do so only on an emergency basis.
Oney enjoys her work with the Baltimore County home energy office and is glad to be able to keep people from facing a real crisis.
“It’s nice to see people smile, to see the load lifted off of them,” she said.