OCAP overwhelmed with calls for energy assistance

Published 7:25 pm Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Failing to reach anyone at OCAP’s office by phone, some city residents in need of financial help with their energy bills camped outside of the organization’s office in Greenville on Wednesday morning.

OCAP, which serves seven counties including Butler, received funds from the federal government as part of the low-income home energy assistance program. Wednesday, the organization began taking appointments by phone for those in need of assistance.

Those who called OCAP’s phone number received a busy signal. That prompted many people, both young and old, to brave near-freezing temperatures outside OCAP’s office on School Highlands Rd. Some like 36-year-old Yolander Peterson had been outside the office since before 8 a.m.

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Peterson said herself and a number of people in the group had been trying for over two hours to contact someone with OCAP and make an appointment. But only busy signals greeted most callers, said Peterson.

“This is ridiculous,” said Peterson. “There are a total of three notices (on the office) that says they are not taking walk-ins and we need to call in…that’s all well and good. That’s fine. But how can you make an appointment we you cannot get through? And they are not answering the phone.”

Inside OCAP, one employee was taking calls and making appointments. The Butler County office has only one phone line available for those interested in the program, said Cindy Hinton, OCAP supervisor in Troy.

Hinton said that the sheer volume of calls for help, especially considering the recent recession, is overwhelming. She said OCAP received $836,805 to serve a seven-county area through this program. Butler County received $142,257 of that amount, she said.

“That’s just not a lot of money to reach everyone who needs help,” said Hinton. “We’re seeing a lot of new people. And a lot of people think it’s their money and that they deserve it so they get frustrated with the process.”

Hinton said OCAP operates on a first-come, first-served basis, which is why Wednesday was set aside as the day for the organization to make appointments. OCAP was able to schedule over 100 appointments in Georgiana on Tuesday, said Butler County Director Joann Bonner.

Applicants must demonstrate need based on income and household, said Hinton.

Peterson said she has a 12-year daughter with asthma and is worried because she’s behind on paying her electrical bill.

“I’m not saying they (OCAP) are to blame because I’m behind on my light bill,” she said. “But I am saying that I’m entitled to get assistance if I can get assistance from a federally funded program.”

66-year-old L.P. Palmer said has been applying for assistance for two years, but to no avail. A massive heart attack in 2004 eliminated any opportunities he had as far as work goes, he said, and skyrocketing medicine costs ate up his savings.

“If I could get out and do a little work I wouldn’t even be here,” said Palmer. “I got no money to buy nothing.”

Palmer’s voice shook as he talked about living without heat for nearly two years.

“I’m about to freeze in that house,” he said.