SEATTLE — Washington state’s Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) saw a 10% increase in people applying for help in 2021 and 2022.
Program leadership said the spike in calls for help is mostly due to pandemic recovery and inflation.
LIHEAP was created to help Washingtonians keep warm in the winter and cool in the summer.
Puget Sound Energy rates jumped by nearly 9% this year while natural gas costs spiked by 23%. The war in Ukraine along with less natural gas production and increased demand is driving prices higher.
Plus, colder temperatures across Washington state have prompted people to heat their homes more — causing higher bills.
Through the federal government and legislature, the program is contracted to provide assistance throughout the state. LIHEAP could be used to cover the cost of a utility bill automatically or pay off an outstanding amount to avoid a shut-off.
“If someone qualifies they can get a benefit between $200 and $1,000 that we pay directly to the utility company on the customer's behalf," said Brian Sarensen, LIHEAP program director. "Then they just can work that credit down or it will pay off their entire balance.”
It does not matter where people live in Washington or which company provides their utilities. While there are income requirements, Sarensen said many people are "surprised" they qualify for the much-needed help.
Sarensen said some people applying for utility assistance have mentioned their struggles to pay for medicine or groceries. This challenge then causes people to make difficult choices.
“People die from extreme cold," Sarensen said. "It's not just those who can't afford it or who get turned off. We have customers on limited incomes who also underheat their homes. They keep their homes at you know 60 or 65 and bundle up with blankets and it's just not healthy.”
The program also has funding in place to supply thousands of qualifying residents with air conditioning units to combat extreme heat. Air purifiers are also available to those who qualify, according to Sarensen.
To view more information about the LIHEAP program, review the income requirements, and apply for help, click here.