A program designed to aid low-income residents with high-energy costs came to a close when the Hidalgo County Community Service Agency exhausted all funding for the year. Now, the thousands of families who rely on the assistance have to make do until next year when they can apply for the program again.
The Hidalgo County CSA’s primary objective is reducing and eliminating poverty. They assist in crisis intervention for families on the verge of eviction, those in need of food or medication, victims of domestic violence and those who need financial assistance.
The CSA receives yearly grants to help provide services to families below the federal poverty income threshold — one of those grants is for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). This year, Hidalgo County received $6 million from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for LIHEAP.
Households that applied and qualified for LIHEAP received electricity and gas bill assistance. It’s a first come, first served kind of program. And CSA Executive Director Jaime Longoria said the families in need live throughout the county; the demographic is not exclusive to one city over another. This year alone, Hidalgo County CSA helped more than 6,700 families under the energy program, but that is still not even close to the total amount of households living in poverty.
“The guidelines of this program are designed to meet the needs of about 6-8% of the eligible families. We have over 100,000 families in our county that qualify for these services,” Longoria said. “As far as our demographics, about a third of our families are over the age of 60. About a third of the families have children under the age of 18. And roughly about another third is families that are just right in the middle.”
The executive director said the community service agency typically receives the funds toward the end of January — right around the time they start accepting applications. The peak months of fund distribution are June, July and August due to the larger utility bills and the south Texas heat. But he said the money usually depletes by the beginning of fall.
“We try to keep some dollars available for those families that we know are gonna struggle going into the winter months,” Longoria said. “The last thing we want is for families to go through the winter months without electricity or struggle to keep the lights on during those months. Because, as you know, once in a while we’ll get some cold spells and families struggle through that as well.”
But even though funding for LIHEAP has depleted for the year, the Hidalgo County Community Service Agency still has other programs that continue, such as the Low Income Housing Water Assistance Program. The CSA received just over $2 million in federal funds to assist families in paying their water bills.
The agency also has a program that helps transition families out of poverty with the help of a $1.2 million federal grant. In the past, the CSA helped pay for tuition, school supplies, licenses or other means to help people transition to higher-paying jobs to get them out of poverty.
“During the pandemic, a lot of our energy, a lot of our funds were being diverted from that [transition] program towards crises. We did a lot of crisis intervention,” Longoria said. “So now we’re trying to transition that program back into doing this kind of stuff to get families out of poverty.”
The CSA executive director asks Hidalgo County residents to be patient with the agency when funds are low or have depleted. The federal government determines how much money the CSA receives based on a formula using population data. The funding is limited in nature, he said.
“We try to make the dollars go as far as we possibly can. And, really, that’s what we’re equipped for,” Longoria said. “When Congress decides to increase our level of funding and increase our ability to serve families, then we’ll be able to do other things.”