Heating program for elderly poor running out of money

Posted: January 18, 2014

PHILADELPHIA A charitable fund used primarily to buy heating oil for poor elderly Philadelphians may be out of money within a week.

"It's very dire," said Holly Lange, president and CEO of the Philadelphia Corp. for Aging (PCA), which administers the Emergency Fund for Older Philadelphians on behalf of a coalition of 22 social-service agencies.

The fund is considered a service of last resort - the safety net beneath all other safety nets - because people can receive payments from it only if they have already exhausted government programs that provide energy assistance.

As of Thursday, the fund contained $13,900, said Chris Gallagher, director of the PCA Helpline, which processes requests for assistance. PCA is a private nonprofit that advocates for the elderly and helps deliver services.

With requests for oil for the elderly running at more than $2,000 a day, the fund will last only for days, Gallagher said - especially during January, usually the coldest month of the year in Philadelphia, official weather records show.

In the fiscal year that began July 1, the fund has disbursed $108,000, around 70 percent of that for heating oil, Gallagher said.

"We need another $100,000 now," Gallagher said. "This is high season for oil."

People get desperate, he added, recounting instances of seniors using unsafe kerosene heaters in their homes, or even burning wood in apartments without fireplaces.

"It's very stressing trying to stay warm," said Ruth Munson, 72, of East Mount Airy, who lives in poverty on nearly $12,000 in Social Security payments and food stamps. Among other jobs, she worked 23 years for the U.S. Mint, making coins.

"I never know when the heat is going to give out," she said.

Munson, who lives in heavy sweaters and robes in her house, was able to receive 100 gallons of oil through the fund, but the fuel is burning fast.

"I wish things could be better," she said.

To be eligible for the fund, which is in its 25th year, people must be 60 or older, and living at 175 percent or less of the poverty rate (around $20,000 annually for a single person). Advocates say they know of no other charitable entity like the emergency fund anywhere in the state.

"It's really, really valuable, and something unique to Philadelphia," said Pam Walz, an expert on senior issues for Community Legal Services. "It makes a big difference."

Last year, the fund gave out $250,000 to 1,406 households, Gallagher said.

Most of it was for oil, but in some cases, people received food, water, coats, and other basics, said Karen Buck, executive director of the SeniorLAW Center.

The center, like other organizations dealing with the elderly, helps hold fund-raisers and explores other methods to feed the fund.

Unfortunately, charitable money is hard to come by, Buck said, adding, "Seniors are not a priority for donors and funders."

She said there was a "false optimism" about seniors in America, with people believing the elderly are better taken care of than they are.

"Enormous numbers of seniors live in poverty," Buck said, "and are unable to increase their income. At the same time, a lot are raising young grandchildren.

"It's a harsh time to be an older person in the United States."

In Philadelphia, 17.9 percent of the city's 267,000 seniors live in poverty, according to figures compiled by Allen Glicksman, researcher for PCA. Throughout Pennsylvania, 8.4 percent of seniors are poor. Nationwide, the figure is 9.4 percent.

After a lifetime of hard work, it seems unfair that a senior citizen should have to freeze at home, said Yvonne Cottman, 74, of Germantown, who worked till age 71 as a caretaker for other senior citizens. Her Social Security payments keep her near the poverty line of $11,500 for a person living alone.

"I don't think we should have as hard a time in getting things for ourselves," she said. "So many things are a struggle."



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