Sara Tabin

Sen. Chris Murphy visited the Community Action Agency of New Haven Monday not just to speak, but to listen.

The senator came with the goal of hearing stories of New Haven residents who depend on federal funding to pay their heating bills. Before sitting down with seven members of CAANH, Murphy spoke with beneficiaries of the service, which connects New Haven residents in poverty with a variety of programs that provide support with education, health and housing. One such program is the Connecticut Energy Assistance Program, which helps low-income individuals pay for heat. Murphy’s visit followed a report released last December by Operation Fuel, a private charity that partners with Connecticut businesses, local governments and communities to expand access to year-round energy assistance. The report showed that 313,000 households out of roughly 1.3 million in Connecticut cannot afford their energy bills this winter. According to Murphy, over 100,000 people in Connecticut already use low-income heating assistance programs this year, and that number is rising.

“We’ve known for a long time that there are people in Connecticut and across the country that are freezing in the winter because of inadequate access to affordable heat,” Murphy said. “It is not hyperbole to say that this is a matter of life and death.”

Murphy explained that the federal funding Connecticut now receives is “simply not enough” to meet the needs of Connecticut residents who cannot afford heating. Several years ago, roughly 60 to 70 percent of the cost of low-income individuals’ heating bills was covered by the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, Murphy said. But because the number of people requiring assistance is increasing, the program’s federal budget of $3.3 billion is spread so thin that it can not cover more than 50 percent of an individual’s heating bills, he added.

According to Murphy, the majority of people receiving assistance are seniors, people with disabilities and families with young children. He added that although many are working, they cannot afford their winter bills on minimum wage jobs.

New Haven resident Jasmine Sullivan, a mother of three who has been relying on CAANH for more than five years, attended Monday’s event. She said the gas companies will shut off the heating for those who cannot pay. At the meeting she told Murphy that two years ago, she and her two young children — aged four and 10 — went two months without heating.

“[CAANH] helps. It keeps us out of the cold,” she said. “I have begged and pleaded [to the gas company] plenty of times. It’s a terrible feeling, especially when you can’t do anything about it.”

After speaking with New Haven residents who use state assistance, Murphy said he would use their stories to muster support for more funding in Congress, particularly from representatives from warmer states who may not understand the importance of these programs.

Sullivan said when she goes to CAANH with notices from her gas company, the organization helps immediately. With its support, she still pays more than half of the bill on her own.

Amos Smith, president and CEO of CAANH, spoke about the importance of the program for individuals who have previously been incarcerated, as incarceration records make it difficult for people to find jobs that pay enough to cover heating costs. The city’s re-entry initiative aims to help individuals recently released from prison who have found employment, according to Smith.

In 2013, roughly 10 percent of the Connecticut population lived below the poverty level, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.