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Paying for heat a chilling prospect for region's jobless

By Izaskun E. Larrañeta

Publication: The Day

Published 11/25/2012 12:00 AM
Updated 11/24/2012 11:22 PM
Economic woes lead to jump in applications for winter assistance

Norwich - Michael and Kristin Baker sit patiently in a Thames Valley Council for Community Action office, waiting to be called so they can apply for help with their heating bills.

The couple laugh and smile at each other, hiding a deep sense of worry.

Kristin Baker was laid off a year ago from her job at Wal-Mart, and her unemployment benefits ran out this week. Her husband recently was laid off from ZeroDraft in Waterford.

"I have to keep reminding myself that there are people who are worse off than us," Kristin Baker said. "I keep thinking it is God's will, but a little help from Him would be nice."

The couple merged their families and are raising four boys, ages 16, 12, 10 and 8. The Bakers, who rent a home in Norwich, say they do their best to shield the children from their financial stress.

"Our kids are so used to being poor that they don't even ask for anything anymore," Kristin Baker said. "It's tough always having to say no to them. It breaks your heart. I don't know how we are going to do Christmas this year."

She said the last two years have been especially hard, so much so that she says she has been seeing a therapist and taking medication for depression. She has had two heart operations.

TVCCA is on track to process a record number of applications for the Connecticut Energy Assistance Program, which helps qualified applicants pay for the primary way they heat their home.

The agency has received 5,000 applications and expects up to 200 more per day to be processed through January, according to Zack St. John, energy support services manager. At that rate, he said, more than 10,000 households will have applied for help. Two years ago this month, TVCAA had received 3,878 applications.

"We are seeing a lot of new faces," St. John said.

Lee Carenza, assistant director of energy support services, said the lack of jobs and expiring unemployment benefits are some of the reasons for the increase.

"There is a greater and greater need," Carenza said. "We hope that the assistance they receive from us frees up money for other essentials like food."

He said this year, applicants are also being assessed as to whether they qualify for other services. Carenza noted that many times, people aren't aware that they may qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps) and child care assistance.

"We are looking at a person's entire situation and are doing our best to make sure they are getting all available resources," Carenza said.

Hard to find work

Kristin Baker said the family has been surviving on unemployment benefits and $104 monthly in food stamps. It has been difficult to make ends meet.

"I'm basically robbing Peter to pay Paul," she said.

Baker said she uses most of her food stamps to buy meat for the month. But she says she feels a sense a shame and embarrassment when she uses the food stamp debit card.

Michael Baker half-jokingly added, "I stand in front of her so no one sees."

The Bakers had once considered themselves middle class, but after a series of health issues and the loss of their jobs, they are now poor and struggling.

Kristin Baker said going through tough times has made her more resourceful. She shops for her family at Goodwill, clips coupons and goes to five stores to get the most for her money.

"I'm so sick of Hamburger Helper and ramen noodles," she said as she smiled and teared up. "I can't tell you when was the last time I bought fruit. We only buy the necessities."

Baker said she has searched for work, to no avail.

Michael Baker installed gutters for 16 years with different companies in the region.

"With construction the way it is, it's going to be hard to find another job," he said.

The Bakers don't know yet how much they will receive from the TVCCA program. In the meantime, they do their best to keep their gas heating bill low.

They bought an Amish heater two years ago and run it to keep the house warm. "Of course, our electricity bill goes up," Kristin Baker said.

The Bakers said whatever assistance they receive from the program will be greatly appreciated. Still, the worries don't seem to end.

"I'm 41," Kristin Baker said. "I'd thought I would be better off than this."

i.larraneta@theday.com

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Help is available

This year, the Thames Valley Council for Community Action received a little more than $11.3 million to assist low-income households who need help heating their homes.

The amount of assistance qualified applicants can receive ranges from $300 to $575, depending on income. If people need more help, crisis assistance benefits of $100 or $400 are available, and if more help is needed, an additional $400 safety net benefit can be obtained.

Contact TVCCA at (860) 425-6681 or your town's social service agency to apply.

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