Funding cuts leave many without home heating assistance in Macon

When Eugene Jenkins showed up at St. Paul AME Church at 1:30 a.m. Wednesday, he didn’t know he would be one of the last people to get a ticket for assistance with his heating bill.

He waited in line until 7 a.m., when officials started to hand out the tickets, then went home for a few hours before returning at 10 a.m. By the time he had finished up his paperwork, it was 1:15 p.m., making for a long day.

Jenkins was one of the lucky ones in Macon, though. Other people were turned away because the Macon-Bibb County Economic Opportunity Council, which distributes the federal money, had its share of funding for the program cut by 44 percent this year.

“I don’t know what I was going to do without it,” Jenkins said. “It’s something that needs to get taken care of.”

Jimmie Samuel, executive director of the agency, said the need for assistance in Bibb County has spiked, while the available funds to fill those needs have been slashed.

“We’re close to being out of money,” Samuel said. “We’re going to assess to see what we can do, to see if we can do any more.”

That’s left people such as Raymeica Kelley frustrated. Kelley said she, her mother and her sister arrived at the church about 3 a.m. Wednesday, only to get turned away.

“We were already too late,” she said. “It’s like impossible (to get a ticket). It gets in the way of people who need it. ... If we’re there at 3 a.m. and it’s already too late, what time are you supposed to go?”

Kelley said she was unemployed for a year before recently landing a job. But her bills have stacked up while she was unemployed, and she needs the assistance.

Kelley and some of the others who were turned away said they thought about 350 people would get help Wednesday, but the line got cut off at No. 219.

Samuel said his agency did serve 350 on the first day, then made adjustments to the number of people they could serve based on the amount of money left.

Samuel said he’s heard the complaints from the community about the current system, but he said it’s the most efficient way the agency has found to distribute the funds during the year. That’s in terms of seeing the most people possible and in keeping records of where the money gets distributed.

“It’s been done in different ways, but this is the best way,” he said. “It serves the numbers we’re required to serve. It’s not perfect, obviously, but we’ve tried tweaking it in the past, and this is the best way. We’re open to looking at other ways of doing it.”

A few years ago, Kelley said, people who needed assistance were able to call the agency to schedule an appointment. But Samuel said his agency’s phones were overwhelmed when that system was in place, and that a third of the people who made appointments were no-shows.

The situation seems worse this year, he said, because more people need assistance, but there’s less money to go around.

City Councilman Lonnie Miley, who serves as president of the Economic Opportunity Council’s board of directors, said the agency is trying to do the best it can, given the circumstances.

“We’re trying to serve as many as we can.” he said. “It’s frustrating. We’re trying to serve as many as possible, but the need is so great.”

Samuel said his office is trying to determine if there’s enough funding left to have another session Friday. People who need assistance can call the council at (478) 738-3240 on Thursday to see if another session will be scheduled.