Government program helps low-income families keep A/C on

2014-08-10T15:00:00Z 2014-08-10T21:57:43Z Government program helps low-income families keep A/C onBy Nicole Thill For the Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

The bills were piling up — making mortgage payments, paying utilities, buying groceries.

Nathan Ruiz, 37, was struggling to make ends meet last November. He was facing foreclosure after missing mortgage payments and trying to prioritize other bills that needed to be paid. He was also trying to support his four children Denitza, 14; Mariella, 16; Ismael, 18; and Nathan, 19, whom he has been raising as a single dad since his wife’s death in 2000.

After he was laid off from his job at an asphalt company, Ruiz scraped together all the money he could by selling his late wife’s jewelry, an old vehicle, his television and other items — but it still wasn’t enough.

“Those are all material things. If you don’t have a place to put those things, it doesn’t matter,” he said. “We just did what we had to.”

Ruiz, a member of the Pascua Yaqui tribe, went to the Tucson Indian Center for help and qualified for assistance to pay his mortgage and utility bills.

“The resources gave me a second chance to stay in my house with my family,” he said.

Help came from the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, a federally funded program that helps families in need pay electricity bills in times of crisis.

The Tucson Urban League, which helps connect people to the Energy Assistance Program, sees about 400 people come in to apply in the summer. On average, the program helps 20,000 to 30,000 people statewide.

With summer temperatures topping 100, air conditioning is not a luxury. It’s a matter of health and safety — and it can be an expensive one at that. Balancing the cost against other bills can be a financial burden.

“In Arizona you can get a $600 electricity bill sometimes, and that’s not exaggerating,” said Melanie Starns, assistant director of the Division of Aging and Adult Services at the Arizona Department of Economic Security.

“I’ve seen the program help hardworking people who come into a bind,” said Kathleen Cruz, who coordinates the Energy Assistance Program. “It’s people who come up against financial or medical costs.” 

The program sees a high volume of applicants in the summer, usually June through September. However, about a third of the state has freezing weather in the winter, and about 35 percent of the program’s funding helps families with heating costs.

After Ruiz knew he was able to keep his home, he began working two jobs, nearly 70 hours a week, to get back on his feet. He recently left one job to be able to spend more time with his family, and his income is steady enough that he doesn’t need to work as much.

“Because of the resources it didn’t just temporarily fix something,” Ruiz said. “Now I’m able to permanently sustain my family.”

Funding for the program is distributed from the state level to 14 agencies throughout the state.

The state received $19.3 million from the federal government this year for the Energy Assistance Program, about $2 million less than last year. The program will be able to help about 2,000 fewer people because of the cut, Cruz said.

While Ruiz says he is in a good place financially now, he often encourages people he knows to seek assistance in extreme situations.

“I’ve been making it a point to tell people who are struggling to go here or go here,” Ruiz said. “I think the only way people find out about a lot of these programs is through word of mouth.”

Nicole Thill is a University of Arizona journalism student who is an apprentice at the Star. Contact her at starapprentice@azstarnet.com

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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