Foto ilustrativa, Christo James, pexels

Community Legal Services (CLS) and Esperanza released policy recommendations in the newly published Enduring the Extremes: As Temperatures Rise, Pennsylvania Must Expand LIHEAP to Cover Cooling Needs. The Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), a federally-funded program that helps low-income households in every state pay for their home energy bills and resolve energy-related crises, does not currently cover cooling costs in Pennsylvania. Through a survey of over a hundred residents and a community listening session in North Philadelphia, Esperanza and CLS identified an urgent need for Pennsylvania to expand LIHEAP to include cooling assistance and avert the harmful health impacts of rising temperatures in low-income communities and communities of color.   

The survey included renters and homeowners. 51% of those surveyed were African American, and 41% were Hispanic/Latinx. Of those surveyed, 76% said they cannot afford their energy bills in the summer. “Sometimes the mail will come late and if I get behind, I get a shut-off notice. Then there is nothing I can do because there is no LIHEAP in the summer,” said one participant. “Everything is expensive and increasing. It is ridiculous how the bills jump. My bill is high all year. I have asthma and anemia. They should have LIHEAP all year round for everyone,” said another participant. The report also identified a need for materials and education on the program in Spanish.

As temperatures rise, so do cooling costs. Across Pennsylvania, electric bills increased by an average of 79% between June 2020 and June 2023. “In Philadelphia, several neighborhoods experience temperatures as much as 22 degrees higher than others,” the report states. Historically redlined neighborhoods like Hunting Park, Cobbs Creek, and Point Breeze, which are predominantly Black and Latino, are the city’s hottest neighborhoods. Due to systemic disinvestment, these communities have older housing infrastructure and fewer trees and green spaces. In rural areas across the Commonwealth, the impact of rising temperatures on the agricultural industry is compounded by the lower likelihood that rural residents will have air conditioning in their homes. Those who can pay the least have to pay the most. 

“Our Hunting Park community has some of the highest heat exposure and sensitivity scores in the city, which disproportionately and negatively affect the health and well-being of local residents in one of the poorest districts in Philadelphia. While Esperanza and many local partners continue to green our streets and collaborate to help mitigate extreme heat in our neighborhood, residents need support in the form of policy change now. Esperanza and CLS are calling for year-round LIHEAP assistance, and for program materials to be accessible in Spanish to better serve Latino communities citywide and invite others to do the same,” said Dr. Jamile Tellez Lieberman, Esperanza’s Senior Vice President of Community Engagement, Research and Health Equity. «This is one part of Esperanza’s Anti-Poverty Project, which engages Latinos in key policies and programs impacting our social and economic well-being.”

Heat waves and extreme weather events have profound implications for public health across rural and urban areas of the state. During heat waves, adults 65 years-old and older with acute and chronic health conditions are the most vulnerable. 

“Hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvanians depend on LIHEAP every year to afford heating costs between November and early April, but they have nowhere to turn for help with staying safe and cool during the summer. As the state gets hotter, Pennsylvania’s General Assembly must join 30 other states and provide funding to expand LIHEAP to provide cooling assistance and air conditioners. Pennsylvanians can no longer afford to shoulder the costs of hotter temperatures, which disproportionately affect low-income communities and communities of color without the support of expanded LIHEAP,” said  Lydia Gottesfeld, Managing Attorney of the Health & Independence Unit at CLS. 

In Pennsylvania, LIHEAP is administered by the PA Department of Human Services (DHS) and provides financial assistance to households at or below 150% of the federal poverty level. Each season, eligible households can apply to receive a one-time cash grant that is based on a variety of factors, such as household income, family size, and the type of heating fuel used. This past LIHEAP season, cash grant amounts ranged from $300 to $1,000. May 12th marked the end of the LIHEAP assistance season, which was extended for 2023, just as temperatures begin to rise with projected records for the hottest summer days. 

CLS and Esperanza call on the Pennsylvania General Assembly to fund the expansion of LIHEAP to cover cooling needs and avert the harmful effects of climate change on the health of low-income communities and communities of color.

Esperanza was founded in 1986 to serve «the least of these» (the underserved and marginalized) and to strengthen Hispanic communities and all who live within them. Over nearly four decades, Esperanza has grown into a $72 million organization with 630 employees serving approximately 25,000 people annually through K-14 education, community and economic development, the arts, and social change programs. Esperanza is building an «opportunity community» in Hunting Park – a place marked by decent and affordable housing, increasing prosperity, growing businesses, great schools, safe streets, creative spaces, and robust community life, where anyone at any income level can thrive.

Since its founding in 1966, Community Legal Services (CLS) has provided free civil legal assistance to more than one million low-income Philadelphians. Almost 10,000 clients were represented by CLS in the past year. CLS assists clients when they face the threat of losing their homes, incomes, health care, and even their families. CLS advocates provide a full range of legal services, from individual representation to administrative advocacy to class action litigation, as well as community education and social work. CLS is nationally recognized as a model legal services program.


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