Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
For Miquela Larrañaga, a single mother from Santa Fe with two young sons, receiving utility bill assistance was a load off her shoulders.
She is taking classes toward a degree in early childhood education and early childhood special education, and she works full time as a public school’s pre-K teacher’s assistant.
“Teaching remotely and home schooling my boys was not easy and, now that we are back in the classroom, we are at risk of exposure to COVID-19 and don’t always get paid if we are out due to the pandemic,” she said.
She applied for and received utility bill assistance through the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP, which helps low-income families and individuals defray the cost of home heating bills in the winter and cooling costs in the summer.
Larrañaga, who said she couldn’t recall how much the assistance covered, was clear that “it helped me a lot because, being a single mom, I could use the money it saved me for other things, like food, gas for my car, or even to help with my student loans. And it helped me to not get behind on my other bills. I am grateful for the LIHEAP program and I hope that others take the opportunity to apply for this resource.”
With the cold months of winter descending, state officials are reminding low-income residents that this money is available, said Angela Medrano, deputy secretary for the Human Services Department, which administers the federally funded LIHEAP program.
“We’ve had this in our benefit package all along, but we just wanted to bring it to everyone’s attention during these times to let them know that it’s still out there and they can apply,” Medrano said.
And many people have.
In 2021, 62,911 New Mexico households have taken advantage of the program, collectively receiving more than $21 million, she said. Eligibility is based on household size and the gross annual income of every household member 18 years of age or older. Households can earn no more than 150% of the federal poverty level – the equivalent of a family of three earning $2,745 per month, or roughly $32,940 a year, Medrano said.
The benefit runs on the federal fiscal year – October through September – and individuals must apply each year to receive a one-time assistance payment for the new fiscal year to help defray the cost of winter heating or summer cooling bills. The average amount of the once-a-year assistance payment is about $285, she said.
Payments are made directly to the utility vendor that supplies the applicant’s gas, electricity, propane or even cut wood for those who use a wood stove for winter heat.
Albuquerque resident Ashley, who asked that her last name not be used, got significantly more than the average. The married mother of two children, ages 3 and 10 months, received about $600 to cover the cost of months of missed payments on her electricity bill.
“My husband lost his job at the beginning of COVID and he’s just been kind of working contracting jobs since then,” she said. The family subsequently was forced to move and is paying more now “because there was almost nothing available to rent.”
The LIHEAP funding, which she received for the first time, “caught us up on our electric bill, which helped us catch up on some other bills that we were behind on,” she said. “It was awesome.”
Since 2019, the state has distributed $73,927,065 in energy assistance to approximately 200,963 low-income New Mexico households. That includes funding of $5,383,505 to 17,945 people under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security, or CARES, Act.