Virginia's fuel assistance program, which has subsidized the heating bills of low-income residents for the past four winters, closed its doors to new applicants today because the state no longer has enough money to help them.
The action, coming on the eve of winter, means that as many as 35,000 qualified households, or more than 100,000 people, could lose fuel aid payments of up to $700 a household, state officials said. Some of the most severely affected may receive special one-time "emergency" payments of $150, although the standards for eligibility will be far stricter.
"We've had so many people apply that we basically ran out of money," said Richard Martin, Department of Social Services spokesman.
Today's action, which caught local welfare officials off guard, was forced by a 25 percent jump in applications this year, apparently caused by higher unemployment. Since the program opened its doors Nov. 1, the state had processed so many applications that its entire $28 million federally funded allotment was gone. The state had originally intended to take applications through March 31.
"This could be real serious," said James Dimitri, a staff attorney with the Virginia Poverty Law Center in Richmond. "I think you could see people forced out of their homes. The elderly will be particularly affected . . . You can imagine some people in a situation where they're not going to have any place to turn."
Most Northern Virginia officials, however, were reluctant to predict the severity of the problem other than acknowledging that hundreds of eligible households will be deprived assistance. Verdia Haywood, deputy Fairfax County executive for human services, estimated that more than half of the 1,100 to 1,400 households he expected to serve this year will be affected.
"It's really too early to tell how serious this is going to be," Haywood said. "Obviously, weather conditions are going to be a factor."
In the event there is a harsh winter, the ability of the state's emergency program to help pay heating costs will be limited. Standards for qualifying for the emergency funds are also more restrictive. Under the regular program, recipients could have up to $1,500 in the bank. Under the emergency program, they can have $500.
Payments from the state's $3 million emergency aid fund also will be made only to persons who are out of fuel or who have received a cut-off notice from suppliers.
"We're going to be facing the whole question of what to do with people in January or February who need assistance but don't qualify for the emergency program or, if they do, what to do if the emergency payments aren't enough," said Douglas Smarte, the fuel assistance administrator in Arlington.
Although created by Congress and funded by federal grants, the low-income fuel aid program is administered by each state. In Virginia, eligibility is determined by a formula that considers income, geographic location and type of heating fuel. A family of four in Northern Virginia can earn up to $13,950 and still be eligible.
Last year, the program subsidized the fuel bills of slightly more 100,000 families with payments averaging $240 each. In most cases, the payments were made directly to the fuel supplier.
This year, although overall funding remained the same, the state has limited assistance to about 90,000 households, because the average payment jumped to $320, primarily because of more applications from the jobless. Most of the increase has come from those areas with high unemployment, such as the state's far southwest.
"It looks as though the people who are applying have less money," said Martin. He said a total of 3,785 Northern Virginia households received payments under the program last year, though no figures are available on the number of Northern Virginia households that will receive benefits this year.