Heating assistance program feels financial strain under budget cuts

Published: Dec. 20, 2016 at 6:31 PM AKST
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During the cold months, staying warm can take a toll on your wallet. Every year, thousands of Alaskans request assistance for basic utilities like heating. But with the state's fiscal deficit, those trying to help needy families make ends meet say they're also feeling the pinch.

Cook Inlet Tribal Council's heating assistance program, which helps Alaska Native and American Indian families within the Municipality of Anchorage, said it may need to close in February because its budget was reduced by half for this fiscal year.

Holly Morales, CITC's director of employment and training said the group helps families with gas, electricity and some portions of their rent.

Last year, a federal grant provided the program with $289,000 and the state kicked in another $260,000. This year, the program will have to rely on federal funding only.

Morales said CITC is seeing a growing number of families asking for help this year and the group is trying to find other solutions by February.

"That's one of the coldest months of the year and so we're very concerned about it and what we're having to do is look to other programs to see how can we fill the need and unfortunately we probably won't be able to fill all of it," Morales said.

United Way of Anchorage operates a statewide referral system known as Alaska 2-1-1, which helps connect families with resources they need.

Andy Preis, the manager of Alaska 2-1-1 said the most common types of calls are requests for help with basic needs.

Preis said if programs connected with the referral system don't have the funding to meet the caller's need, they work to find other ways to help.

"We do the best we can to point them in different directions, other places where they can save money or potentially find assistance elsewhere in their budget," Preis said. "That's when referrals for things like health care, food pantries, and cheaper housing come in."

The system can help families with other resources including: food, tax preparation, job services, mental health, shelter and substance abuse.

There is also an Alaska 2-1-1 app available for smartphones.

As programs like CIRC's heating assistance program try to find a way to help families through the winter, Morales said there are likely other groups struggling with the same issues.

"It's not just an Anchorage issue, it's a statewide issue," Morales said. "There's a lot of tribal organizations as well as the state that are really concerned about how parts of rural Alaska will be impacted by this cut in funding."