By Mac McLean • The Bulletin

Need help this winter?

These Central Oregon programs provide help to seniors and other people who are having problems paying their heating bills.

• NeighborImpact: NeighborImpact’s Home Energy Assistance Program works with local utility companies to help people who earn less than 60 percent of the state’s median income — $2,051 a month for a single person and $4,021 for a family of four — stay on top of their utility bills. Contact: j.mp/NeighborHEA or 541-548-2380.

• Bend’s Community Center: The firewood bank at Bend’s Community Center provides local residents with up to 100 pieces of firewood per month. People must be prescreened to receive the assistance. Contact: j.mp/BCCFirewood or 541-312-2069.

• Nativity Lutheran Church: Nativity’s Wood Lot Ministry provides firewood to needy families during the winter. It will deliver this firewood for a $20 donation that covers the cost of gas. Contact: j.mp/WoodLot or 541-388-0765.

Margaret Estrada’s grandchildren carried a stack of firewood into her house and set it next to her living room wood stove so she could stoke a fire that kept them warm on a cold November morning.

“It’s a job,” Estrada, 67, said. “You have to get up every morning when it’s cold and build a fire that will last the rest of the day.”

Like thousands of other low-income Central Oregon residents, Estrada, 67, and her family members struggle to pay their home heating costs and rely on the services provided by Nativity Lutheran Church’s Wood Lot Ministry, NeighborImpact’s Home Energy Assistance Program and other community organizations to stay warm in the fall and winter. Nearly half of those households have at least one senior living in them.

The organizers of these programs say this time of year — when the days get shorter and the nights get colder — is when they start to see bigger demand for their services, and they expect things to stay this way for at least the rest of the winter.

“This is the time of year when we start to get contacted by people,” said Steve Murphy, NeighborImpact’s associate director of community programs. “It’s really getting busy (in our office), and it will stay busy for the next few months.”

The need

Built in 1954, Estrada’s three-bedroom rental in the Orchard District lacks many modern conveniences — a digital temperature control, insulation, weather stripping and a modern, energy-efficient heat pump or gas furnace — that could keep her warm without causing her electricity bill to spike when the temperatures start to drop.

“This is a really old house … and it’s not insulated that well,” said Estrada, who’s rented her current house for five years and shares it with her two daughters and five grandchildren, who range in age from 2 months to 13 years.

Estrada said she’s asked her landlord to make a few upgrades that might boost the home’s energy efficiency but hasn’t had any luck in getting them done. She’s also thought about moving she said, but can’t find a place she and her family members — who recently left their rental units, due to circumstances beyond their control — can afford that is big enough to suit their needs.

“It’s really tough,” said Estrada, who pays $700 a month in rent. The average three-bedroom rental house in Bend costs about $1,221 a month, according to a January 2014 survey conducted by the Central Oregon Rental Owners Association.

Her typical utility bills come to about $200 a month — but they climb to nearly $600 a month if she turns on the electric baseboard heaters in her living room and $800 a month if she turns them on in the other parts of the house.

She’s tried to bring this bill down by disconnecting most of her home’s baseboard heaters, using only a small radiator to keep her bathroom warm when people are taking showers and getting dressed.

Estrada didn’t have to make these sacrifices when she had a full-time job as a medical courier. But her company lost its contract a few years ago — leaving her in a situation where her only income comes from Social Security and some part-time security work she does for local concerts and events — and now she has problems buying firewood at a time seven other people are counting on her to stay warm.

“There’s no way I can afford firewood at $180 a cord right now,” said Estrada, who estimates a full season’s worth of firewood costs her about $900. She’s been getting firewood for about $20 a pickup load from Nativity’s Wood Lot Ministry since 2011, and she got help from NeighborImpact’s Home Energy Assistance Program last winter as well.

“Without them, I don’t know what we’d do,” Estrada said as she held her youngest grandchild in her warm living room. “I don’t know how we’d keep these children warm.”

The services

Murray, with NeighborImpact, said his agency’s Home Energy Assistance Program helped more than 6,000 households — about 40 percent of which contained a senior — pay their utility bills last winter. It did this with a $2 million budget that comes from the state and federal government, private donations and utility companies such as Cascade Natural Gas and Pacific Power.

“Most people contact us for assistance with their electricity bills,” Murray said of his program, which is limited to people who earn less than 70 percent of the state’s median income: $2,051 a month for a single person and $4,021 for a family of four.

Looking over his records, Murray said it’s hard to find a pattern that would describe the typical family that comes to his program for help. They include families like Estrada’s, who live in older, stick-built homes, families who live in mobile homes or trailers, and families who live in apartments and have run into problems paying their bills.

Generally, the average household electricity bill for Murray’s clients jumps by about $150 to $250 a month during the winter. Clients whose homes use propane heat tend to spend about $400 for enough fuel to last them the winter, he added, while those who use natural gas often need help getting their service switched on in addition to help with their bills.

Because his program works directly with the utility companies, Murray said about 2 to 4 percent of his clients use wood to heat their homes. He usually sends these people to firewood programs, including those managed by Bend’s Community Center and Nativity Lutheran Church’s Wood Lot Ministry.

“We started out gathering firewood and taking it to the homeless camps,” said Richard Berg, one of the wood lot ministry’s co-managers. “And now we go through about four or five cords in a weekend. (The demand) just keeps growing.”

Berg said most of his clients are referred to him by community groups such as NeighborImpact and area churches. He doesn’t have any specific criteria for determining who gets his program’s help because someone else has already determined their need.

“It just takes a little organization on the front end,” Berg said. His program also preserves firewood for the firewood bank at Bend’s Community Center and helps it maintain its supply.

Berg said a lot of seniors, particularly grandparents who are raising their grandchildren, come to the wood lot ministry in need of help. He said it’s not easy for a lot of these people to acknowledge they’re having problems paying their bills, so he tries to give them an opportunity to pay him back by volunteering for the program or helping him locate and gather new stashes of donated wood that he can hand out to his clients during the winter.

“That way they have a sense of pride and ownership,” Berg said, explaining Estrada is one of his top volunteers and sometimes runs the wood lot when he can’t be there. “You get as much as you give.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7816, mmclean@bendbulletin.com

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