By Sean MacDonell
Last week, Colorado legislators passed a coronavirus relief bill that will allocate millions to small businesses and non-profits, including five million dollars for Energy Outreach to help Coloradans weatherize their homes and assist with energy bill payments.
Energy Outreach Colorado (EOC) is a statewide organization that helps Coloradans year-round pay for electricity, natural gas, coal, firewood, kerosene, propane, oil, and wood pellets. The organization was established to address the growing gap between federal funding for energy assistance and the home energy needs of low-income Coloradans. In 2019, EOC’s bill payment assistance program provided over seven million dollars to serve approximately 20,000 households, including 5,000 rural households.
Locally, the program may be accessed through Tri-County Health Network (TCHNetwork). “It’s really one of the best ways to help folks get through a financial rough patch,” says Sean MacDonell, who coordinates the energy assistance program at TCHNetwork. “In 2020 alone, we’ve disbursed over $30,000 to 120 families in San Miguel, Montrose, and Ouray Counties.” As for the application process, MacDonell says it’s quick and easy. “Once we have a person’s application materials, we usually get their past due bills paid within a day or two.”
However, EOC is not the only energy assistance available; between November 1and April 30, community members can also apply for the Low-Income Energy Assistance Program (LEAP), a program designed to help bring warmth, comfort, and safety to individuals and families by assisting with heating costs. “We provided more than 76,000 households with heating assistance last year,” said Theresa Kullen, Colorado LEAP manager, “by easing the strain of heating bills on households, families and individuals don’t have to make a choice between buying groceries or critical medications.”
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and with hundreds of thousands out of work, this winter season is expected to see a record number of applications. While LEAP primarily helps households pay their heating bills, it is also a gateway to other assistance programs. These include programs that help repair or replace heating systems – furnaces or wood-burning stoves – insulate homes, replace refrigerators, install storm doors, and perform other winterizing tasks.
With many federal and state agencies having been over-run by assistance requests, lawmakers have relied on non-profits, like TCHNetwork to get coronavirus relief funds to the local level. However, assistance has not been restricted to energy assistance, throughout the pandemic, TCHNetwork have helped community members with rent, medical bills, car repairs, food assistance, utility assistance, and more through the Good Neighbor Fund (GNF).
Established in 2012 by the Telluride Foundation, the GNF helps promote a stable workforce in Rico, San Miguel, West Montrose, and Ouray County by providing emergency financial assistance. So far this year, Tri-County Health Network has helped 310 clients and distributed nearly half a million dollars throughout the four counties. “Most applicants need money for their rent or mortgage,” explained TCHNetwork executive director Lynn Borup. Others, however, have received support for expenses like snow tires so that they can continue to get to work safely in the winter months.
The GNF also serves as an access point for the Ouray Community Response Fund, a fund created by donors in Ouray County to help community members during the pandemic, as well as the San Miguel Behavioral Health Solutions Fund, an initiative to provide support for behavioral health services in San Miguel County.
With coronavirus cases on the rise on the Western Slope, TCHNetwork expects to see an even greater need for assistance over the next few months – thankfully, plenty of funds are still available and TCHNetwork is encouraging any community member in need of assistance to reach out. For more information about emergency funds or to request assistance, please click here or call 970-708-7096.