Fund to help local seniors with energy bills needs boost

Oregon Energy Fund, a statewide nonprofit that provides energy and utility assistance to individuals and families in crisis, is making a push to serve more senior citizens in Jackson County.

The organization relies on individual and corporate contributions and grants to ensure that people do not have to make a choice between paying energy bills or covering basic needs such as food, shelter or medication, according to Executive Director Brian Allbritton.

But while the need for energy assistance exists in all regions of the state, donations to Oregon Energy Fund, are most prevalent in the Portland metro area and are lagging elsewhere, said Allbritton — and the money it raises assists residents only in the region where it’s raised.

“It’s neighbor helping neighbor, so it’s a great thing that your donation benefits someone else in your own county,” he said. “But in the past few years, the need has increased dramatically in Southern Oregon, while the funding has dropped in half. We’re looking to bring that back up and rejuvenate the area.”

Rising energy costs, slow job expansion in rural areas and increasing rental costs play a role in people’s inability to pay their bills, Allbritton said. He noted that the need is particularly evident among seniors, because they “don’t often ask for help, even when they need it most.”

To reach this population, Oregon Energy Fund has developed a local fund to provide direct emergency energy assistance to households in Jackson County, and is working with ACCESS to better support local seniors and residents.

“This expanded service is aimed at helping seniors stay in their homes, a well-researched, best practice for their health and well-being,” Allbritton said. “It just takes a little bit of support.”

Oregon Energy Fund is primarily looking to businesses to create more partnerships for the fund, named the Jackson County Senior Assistance Fund. Businesses can give direct contributions or collaborate with their customers to provide support for local seniors.

“We’re looking for business partners who want to invest in their community, specifically through supporting their community’s seniors,” Allbritton said. “Partnering with businesses will create an increased awareness and, hopefully, a real impact.”

Joyce Stenseth, who works in the energy assistance department at ACCESS, said she frequently sees the impact that comes from helping seniors pay energy and utility bills.

“A lot of seniors are on fixed incomes, so it can be challenging to afford all the things they need to, but when they come to us, we are able to help them find some relief,” she said. “Clearing up bills for them allows them to pay for important things, like food and prescriptions.”

In the past four years, Allbritton said, funding in Southern Oregon has gone from approximately $120,000 to $65,000, dropping the number of senior households assisted from 150 to 60. In Jackson County alone, funding has fallen from $50,000 to $30,000, resulting in a fall from 50 to 30 senior households helped.

“The goal for the Jackson County Senior Assistance Fund is to bring the numbers back up, doubling the number of senior households assisted,” he said.

Alongside seniors, any Oregon household with a gross income that is 70 percent or less of the statewide median income is eligible for energy assistance.

Residents in Jackson County can go to ACCESS and The Salvation Army in Medford to apply. The two partner agencies help screen applicants to decide who receives assistance, and if they are approved, payments are made directly to the recipient’s fuel vendor.

“People don’t always know how they’re going to make it, so having utility and energy bills paid for a couple of months can change perspective and make a real difference,” Stenseth said. “The more funding we receive, the more people we are able to assist, and there are an endless number of people who need our assistance.”

For more information, visit oregonenergyfund.org or contact Allbritton at 971-386-2124 or by email at brian@oregonenergyfund.org.

Reach Mail Tribune intern reporter Morgan Theophil at mtheophil@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4458. Follow her on Twitter @morgan_theophil.

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