Gas vouchers for low-income families are scarce

June 25, 2008

Record-high gas prices have spiked demand for gas vouchers from local organizations that serve low-income residents. But fuel assistance is scant, according to human service agencies.

"It's a very limited resource," said Annette Blackhart, manager of the 211 call center, a United Way program that serves residents in El Paso, Teller, Chaffee, Park, Lincoln and Cheyenne counties.

The center, accessed by dialing 211 on a phone or toll-free at 1-866-488-9742, gives free and confidential information to people who need help with senior issues, prescription and health care costs, homeless services and utilities, and rent assistance and other basic necessities.

About 500 agencies in El Paso County are connected to the center, which observed its fourth anniversary Monday, Blackhart said.

"We do triage for nonprofits, and we save people time and money from driving or calling around to see who can help them," she said.

A few local agencies distribute gas vouchers to low-income clients, but they are given out only for certain situations.

Ecumenical Social Ministries has strict guidelines on its gas voucher and bus pass programs, said Jennifer Malenky, development and communications director.

The organization serves about 17,000 homeless and low-income clients each year with food, medicine, housing, job placement, educational programs and spiritual guidance.

Gas vouchers are available to clients to get to and from a job or before a first paycheck, Malenky said. The organization recently increased the amount of its gas vouchers from $7 to $10, partially in response to rising gas prices.

Clients must have a driver's license, registration and insurance in their name to obtain the vouchers, she said. If they do not have those documents, they may obtain bus passes to get to and from a pharmacy to pick up a prescription, to and from a job interview or for about a week's worth of transportation to and from a new job before the first paycheck. The organization also limits the number of times a client can receive a gas voucher, usually twice yearly.

"The price of gas is a huge concern for our clients; it's especially crippling for those on public assistance and the disabled. They have to find ways to do more with even less," Malenky said. "But clients should not have an expectation that we help in an ongoing sense with gas because prices are higher."

The average price of a gallon of unleaded gasoline hit a record high in Colorado on Thursday at $4 a gallon.

The 211 center does not disclose which agencies offer gas vouchers or other services, Blackhart said, because it is a referral clearinghouse.

She estimates about six agencies in El Paso County provide gas vouchers. Because of the limited availability of fuel assistance, employees at the 211 call center often work with callers to find other avenues of assistance.

Calls for assistance to the 211 line have increased 20 to 25 percent this year, Blackhart said, because of the weak economy. The center is averaging 120 calls a day, she said.

"We're not getting the regular clientele - we're seeing a shift in households that have been stable for years now needing assistance for the first time," she said. "Many have been financial donors to our organization in the past."





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