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A struggle to keep warm

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

“No one freezes on my watch,” said Gina Wautier, program specialist for the Wisconsin Home Energy Assistance Program. “This program is to keep people warm in the wintertime.”

Now that the weather has begun to turn colder, her watch has resumed. The energy assistance year lasts from Oct. 1 to May 15.

While working with the WEAP, Wautier has seen and heard plenty of heartbreaking and dangerous situations when people can’t afford to keep their homes warm in the winter.

“I have heard of people who can’t afford fuel oil and buying diesel in fuel cans … People who have heated their home with their oven, and others who close off the rest of their house and sit in one room with an electric space heater wrapped in blankets. These are fire and health hazards,” Wautier said. “WEAP can help them through the process of paying their bills so they are not faced with their heat turned off or so their bills do not become so high.”

Wautier said that people applying for emergency assistance through WEAP come from all walks of life — from older adults living on fixed incomes to business owners who are just not making ends meet. Seasonal employees are also in the mix.

“These are people who are generally struggling. This past year I saw an increase in brand-new applications to the program — people who never ever before had to come for assistance. They feel badly about coming to ask for it … but you don’t have to be the poorest of the poor. It is meant to help you through a rough time,” Wautier said. The process is confidential.

Last year 1,159 Door County households received more than $606,000 in regular benefits through the Home Energy Plus program, which assists low-income families who qualify, plus an additional $62,000 in crisis assistance. The Wisconsin Home Energy Assistance Program operates next to the Job Center in Cherry Point Mall through WEP Inc. People who receive assistance through WEAP are entitled to a one-time, once-a-season benefit for heat and electrical costs.

The application process takes about a half-hour with the proper documentation, and the program qualifications are based on a review of the past three months of income, or a 12-month average for business owners and seasonally employed people. Applications are processed by the state and, in most cases, payments goes directly to the fuel or electric companies.

WEAP is funded through a federal block grant that is dispersed to the counties by the state. WEP Inc. is contracted by the County of Door to manage the local program. WEP manages the Weatherization Program for both Door and Kewaunee counties.

“High energy users are flagged for the weatherization program. Auditors find ways to make the home more energy efficient — with insulation in the walls or underneath mobile homes, changing out appliances, sealing air leaks,” Wautier said. Last year the weatherization program improved the energy usage of 80 homes.

WEP also manages the emergency furnace program. In 2011, it repaired 17 furnaces and replaced 10.

To make an application appointment for WEAP, contact WEP Inc. at  (920) 743-7273. Wautier also provides application appointments throughout the county, including the Mosling Rec Center on Washington Island, the Door County Senior Center in Sturgeon Bay, the Southern Door Family Center, and the Sister Bay Library. Home visits to people who are home-bound are available by request.

Pamela Parks
Door County, Wisconsin