Hundreds apply for heating help in Fulton

With the recent cold weather, metro area counties are seeing a strong demand for a federal program that helps with energy bills.

Wednesday morning, the crowd waiting in line to apply got so out of hand at a southeast Atlanta social agency that police were called in and would-be applicants were sent home.

On Friday, hundreds of people lined up again outside the offices of the Fulton-Atlanta Community Action Authority to apply for the federal money.

This time, though, the crowd was more orderly.

“I got here about 7 o’clock,” said Mamie Lawson, one of those in line to apply for up to $350 in assistance from the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP.

“I came earlier this week, and they had some problems,” Lawson said. “The crowd was a little unruly, and they sent some of us home. I was concerned that people were getting angry, uncontrollable, even with the police.”

Joyce J. Dorsey, president and CEO of the authority, which distributes the LIHEAP funds in Fulton County, said that the recent demand for heating assistance is the worst she’s seen in her 20 years with the agency.

On Thursday, the agency distributing LIHEAP money in Cobb County ran out of funds, which Dorsey said are divvied up based on the poverty levels in each individual county.

“Fulton, DeKalb and Clayton County rank highest,” Dorsey told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Places like Marietta may not have been allocated nearly the amount, and they ran out very quickly.”

Dorsey said that $4 million has been allocated this year for Fulton County, “and we expect to spend all of that. We won’t run out of money in November, December or January, but by February or March, if the crowds persist as they are now, we will be done.”

Dorsey said the money, which is voted on by Congress each year, has been cut this year, from $5 million to $4 million in Fulton County.

This federal program, which helps with heating bills in winter and cooling bills in summer, isn't new. In fiscal 2010, the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program distributed $4.5 billion across the nation in base funding. In addition, the Obama administration released $490 million in emergency heating funds last winter. Together, that meant $101 million in funds for Georgia in fiscal 2010.

According to information on the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services website, the LIHEAP program in one's community determines if the household’s income qualifies for the program.

This year, in Gwinnett County, funds are still available and being distributed to needy families. The main Norcross location, which serves families by appointment only, is booked until Dec. 28, according to one employee. There are two additional locations that take walk-ins, but the employee could not speak Friday to the volume at those locations.

In Fulton County on Friday morning, people were willing to wait in the hopes of getting assistance.

Lawson said Friday morning’s temperatures in the low 30s weren’t too uncomfortable.

“I’ve got on two of everything, so I’m good,” she said.

Ricky Lee, 6, said he was waiting in the line with his mother, Channcerria Powell, “to get our lights on.”

Powell said her electricity was turned off three weeks ago.

“Hopefully, people won’t act a fool today, so I’ll be able to get in,” she said.

“So many people have utilities shut off and they’re desperate, they’re anxious and they’re angry,” said Dorsey.

“The sad news is utility costs are going up, and this is a one-time benefit that probably will take care of one month’s utilities, maybe a month and a half.”

Dorsey said that Fulton County residents needing information on the program can call 404-320-0166, or go to the agency's website.

For residents elsewhere, information is on the LIHEAP website.

Staff writer Jaime Sarrio and The Associated Press contributed to this article.