Hundreds line up in east Macon for heating assistance

Emotions ran hot as hundreds of people, standing in the cold for hours, were turned away from the first round of energy assistance applications Thursday morning.

With some of the coldest air of the season approaching, the line of about 400 people snaked around three sides of St. Paul AME church on Shurling Drive.

One man arrived at 5:45 p.m. Wednesday to be the first of 200 applicants allowed in at 7 a.m.

The first two days of 2014 registration are limited to the elderly -- those 65 and older -- and those in crisis with life-threatening health issues. Home-bound appointments are also made at this time of year, weeks ahead of those qualifying solely based on income.

But about half of those clogging the sidewalks were under 65, estimated Lonnie Miley, president of the board of the Macon-Bibb County Economic Opportunity Council that administers the Department of Human Services program.

“It’s ironic that everybody becomes disabled in November,” Miley said. “These same folks will be in line at Black Friday.”

The EOC expects to have at least $500,000 to distribute in about $300 increments this year after receiving $2 million last year.

Miley said there is no reason why people should camp out under blankets or nap in cars with empty chairs holding their place. With extra funds available during last year’s cold winter, the staff had to hit the streets looking for qualified applicants.

He had harsh words for the younger, healthy-looking people he saw outside.

“It’s so disrespectful to people. We’re trying to serve our senior citizens first,” Miley said. At 7 a.m., as the side door of the church opened, Sandra Coleman walked up to take the last place at the end of the very long line.

“This is my first time. I had no idea,” said Coleman, a student who apparently came to apply on low-income status.

When told it was only for 65 and older, her friend pulled up a local television website that mistakenly indicated it was for “elderly or low-income.”

Meanwhile, those at the head of the line were beginning to enter the warmth of the church hall.

Security closed the door after the first 100 shuffled in, some with walkers, others bundled in scarfs.

Tickets from 101-200 were individually handed to those next in line, and they were told to come back in 90 minutes.

That left 66-year-old Julia Grant out in the cold at No. 202.

“This is very disheartening. It’s very degrading,” said Grant. “It’s not Christ-like. It’s not compassionate.”

Others, including 58-year-old Marcus Paschal who was turned away, tried to make their case to Bibb deputies guarding the door.

“I was better treated in Vietnam than I am in my own city,” said Paschal, who thought he should have qualified because he is under hospice care.

Paschal got there at 3 a.m. but was not let in because he did not have a doctor’s note to prove his claim, which is required.

The more vocal in the crowd of stragglers started spouting suggestions on how to better handle distribution.

People could phone in appointments. EOC could hold it in the Macon Coliseum where everyone could be accommodated. Churches should be given the money to distribute to their members.

Another asked why people on fixed incomes had to reapply every year.

Macon-Bibb County Commissioner Al Tillman started getting calls Wednesday questioning the wisdom of limiting applicants and turning people away.

“There’s plenty of money, so people don’t need to jump out there, but they don’t know it,” Tillman said.

As chairman of the Facilities and Engineering Committee, Tillman offered the use of neighborhood recreation centers where the applicants can wait inside until time to register.

Volunteers could be secured to assist and entertain those waiting, he said.

The EOC tries to reduce crowds by staggering the application process and allowing the elderly and infirm the first opportunities.

Observers say under this method 200 applications can be processed in three hours, which is more efficient than scheduling appointments, which are often disregarded.

Miley said things did not go as planned Thursday because of the media miscommunication and the attitude of some of those applying.

“It’s sad where we have gotten to the point where we disrespect our senior citizens so much that we won’t allow them to be served first. That is just ultimate disrespect,” Miley said. “People who are wrapped so into themselves, in what they’re trying to do, they are trying to get the assistance for themselves, and they don’t care.”

He also chided younger folks who dropped off senior citizens to wait in line by themselves.

“Even if they can’t get waited on (Thursday), there are other days we’re going to be doing it. So there’s no need for them to be standing out here,” Miley said.

Saturday at 7 a.m., the elderly and those with health crises can apply again on a first-come, first-served basis. Doctor’s notes must be presented for health exemptions of those under 65.

All applicants must show proof of citizenship, bring a driver’s license or state-issued identification card, have a copy of their most recent energy bill or statement of service from the utility, and bring a valid Social Security card, or printout, for all members of the household.

They will also need proof of household income for the last 30 days, which can be a pay stub or letter from an employer.

Those who are home bound must make an appointment to apply by calling 478-750-8689 or 478-330-6272.

To qualify for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, a person can’t earn more than 60 percent of the state median annual income.

That threshold for a one-person residence is $21,180.

Miley said he is confident all the senior citizens will be helped, but he wished he could do more.

“Ironically, the people who go to work every day often need more help, and you have people living on the system.”

To contact writer Liz Fabian, call 744-4303.