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During sequestration, area's poor face a 'heat or eat' winter choice

Food Bank inventory does not gather dust, as empty shelves show.

Sun Advocate reporter

As a second round of sequestration has begun, the Southeastern Utah Association of Local Governments is scrambling to serve multiple programs and a growing need with dwindling resources.

"During the first round of sequestration cuts, every one of our programs saw between a five and nine percent cut in funding," said AOG Executive Director Debbie Hatt. "Those cuts have meaningful consequences and will be made more difficult depending on how much we lose this next year."

In Carbon, Emery, Grand and San Juan counties, the AOG provides several programs aimed at helping low income Americans. Their Food Bank, Weatherization/HEAT, Aging and Community Development Block Grant programs assist local citizens to augment their income and stay afloat.

The poverty level can be deceptive for those who have never used these programs. For instance, a four member family is considered under the poverty level if they bring home $24,000 a year. A family of three is considered to be at 120 percent of the poverty level if they make $2,300 a month.

According to Hatt, the service which could be impacted most drastically and quickly by the cuts will be the Carbon County Food Bank.

"We won't cut out whole areas or anything like that," she explained. "We will start by seeing where we can save within the program and then look at how we can make the food stretch."

The food bank, along with many other AOG programs see a marked increase in demand as fall and winter set in. The bank may look at reducing hours of operation to deal with the cuts. However, if the federal food stamp program is decreased, there will be a massive influx of residents looking for help at the already stressed food bank.

The program uses strict guidelines to select those they help. Every citizen looking to use the bank must provide proof of income, Social Security numbers for their whole family and a list of everyone living in the home. Should this information place the family at 120 percent of the poverty level they will receive assistance.

"Anyone who needs food is allowed to use the pantry once," explained Hatt. "But if they plan to keep coming back, we need their information."

The AOG director explained that a great many of those who use the food bank's services are working. Their income simply doesn't allow them to feed their family. Many get food stamps, especially the elderly, but it simply isn't enough to get by. If they have medical bills, the problem gets even worse. Some patrons seeking assistance have two incomes.

Upon visiting the bank, many patrons were dejected by the fact that no matter how hard they seem to try, their poverty only increases. According to one client, "the minimum wage and food stamps can't keep you fed, but they sure as hell can keep you poor."

With weather turning cold, literally overnight this past week, the AOG has begun receiving their first calls asking for help from the Weatherization/HEAT program.

Weatherization/HEAT helps residents to insulate their home and augments their utility costs during the winter. The application process works much like the food bank and will also most likely see another cut in federal funding.

Currently, the assistance effort will operate under last year's fiscal contract, according to Hatt. meaning that there are funds available. As last winter was mild, the program was able to help many individuals. Should 2013 turn cold, the number qualifying for assistance could drop.

"It is a comprehensive program," said Hatt. "The process starts when a HEAT officials conducts an efficiency examination of one's home. From there, small fixes are made including the installation of insulation and the weatherization of windows and doors. From there, the effort helps pay a person's heating bill."

Hatt stressed that these programs are not only for the drastically poor. They can help people who are in the low to moderate income bracket. Information about the program can be obtained at the AOG's office on Carbon Avenue.

Another of the association's major commitments is to help the elderly where ever possible. Their aging programs have taken a hit, but are protected somewhat by the "Older American's Funding Act." These federally funded programs help seniors to stay independent and in their own homes. Eligibility for these in-home assisted programs are also based on income as a senior must qualify for Medicaid to be part of the program.

As senior services continue to dwindle locally, Hatt was asked why Medicare Part C is not available for area seniors. Part C helps to organize a senior patient's payments, alleviating the need to send one check here, another check there, pay this and then be reimbursed for that. The providers from Part C take care of a patient's payments.

According to Hatt, the service is not available here because all of the providers have left the area, leaving Carbon County's small population to fend for themselves.

Another group which will be going solo are those who were hoping to "rehabilitate" their homes using Community Development Block Grants. Hatt explained that the CDBG program obtain multiple small grants along with a low interest loan and then use this money to help a low income family purchase an older home and perform the upgrades needed with their own hands.

"CDBG is a great program because it provides the funds needed but allows the homeowner to use their own sweat equity to both save money and take ownership of their new residence," she said. "Projects like a new roof or new windows are typical of what is provided by one of these grants."

Hatt estimated that between eight and 15 homes in Southeastern Utah are rehabilitated by this program each year. The process not only provides a new family with a home but beautifies the community by restoring an eyesore.

"We feel this program will take the biggest hit from sequestration and the general cuts the house of representatives is looking to make," she said.

Concerning the shutdown, most of the 3.3 million government workers which are deemed "essential," will continue to work. However, the almost 800,000 federal employes who are less than "essential" will be sent home.

While the sequestration isn't likely to affect the daily lives of most people, it already has affected those in danger of freezing and starving and the cold sets in.

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