By Gretchen Webster

WESTPORT — Funds to help vulnerable Westport residents pay heating bills this winter are running out, according to town Human Services Director Elaine Daignault.

Fueling the problem is the loss of most of last winter’s American Rescue Plan Act pandemic-era subsidies, and recent cold weather has made allocating assistance for those in need more challenging this year, she said. (Local warming shelters were opened last month in response to an extreme-cold-weather emergency declared by state officials.)

Between 400 and 450 Westport households receive assistance with heating expenses each year, Daignault told a TEAM Westport meeting Thursday.

“Without ARPA funds we have a lot less to give — a lot of people have already expended those benefits and are coming back a second and third time” for energy-bill assistance, she said.

Residents who need help from the federally funded Connecticut Energy Assistance Programmust meet federal-income guidelines to quality. Those criteria are listed on the town’s website. 

Department of Human Services' Warm-Up Fund logo

Westport also has a community-based program, the Westport Warm Up Fund. The fund collects local donations to help those who can’t pay for heat, including some in need of assistance but whose income is above the federal and state guidelines, she said. The Westport program focuses on the immediate area’s income data, rather than federal guidelines, when determining eligibility for assistance.

“Fairfield Country is an expensive place to live,” Daignault said Friday, and some residents, although vulnerable, may not qualify if their earnings are even $1 over the income limits.

The Westport Warm Up Fund relies entirely on community donations and is not funded through the town budget, she added. To donate to the fund, click here.

In addition to the loss of some federal funding and the onslaught of cold weather, the heating-assistance programs are stretched by higher prices for gas, oil and electric power, Daignault noted.

“It is difficult, it has been cold — just a vast difference from last year when we had so many more ARPA funds. It’s going to be a challenging rest of the year for sure,” she said.

State Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, who had initially asked how Westport’s heating-assistance were faring at Thursday’s TEAM Westport meeting, said at the end of the meeting that he would try to secure more CEAP funding.

“We’re hoping to get you some more money,” he said.

Daignault said Friday that taking care of people who can’t afford to pay for heating bills is rewarding for the Department of Human Services staff because it is so necessary.

“I can’t really put into words what it means to help keep people’s heat on in the winter, especially for seniors and families with children,” she said. “For us, it’s one of the most important programs.”

Freelance writer Gretchen Webster, a Fairfield County journalist for many years, was editor of the Fairfield Minuteman and has taught journalism at New York and Southern Connecticut State universities.