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Operation Fuel reopens application process but may need to pause it again

Ice coats power meters outside a Mansfield apartment building on February 04, 2023.
Mark Mirko
Connecticut Public
Ice coats power meters outside a Mansfield apartment building after a burst water pipe on the roof leaked down the side of the structure in freezing temperatures Feb. 4, 2023.

Operation Fuel, the nation’s oldest energy assistance fund, reopened aid applications in April. But another closure may be looming.

The organization was forced to close applications for March due to an increase in demand, CEO Brenda Watson said.

“Our program was just hammered with demand and it wasn’t something that we were expecting,” Watson said. “Coming out of the pandemic, we were really caught off guard. We were expecting this to be a typical season for us.”

In the average summer/fall season, the group serves about 2,000 households annually.

In the winter/spring season Operation Fuel provides support for between 3,000 and 4,000 homes, Watson said. The winter/spring season for the nonprofit runs from December to May.

“We had to pause our season in March so that we could catch up and serve people effectively because we had over $3,000 applications pending in our system, meaning they hadn’t been seen by any of our program staff who analyze the applications and make sure all the documentation is included and then approve the application for direct bill payment,” Watson said.

Pausing the acceptance of new applications allowed them to work through some of the existing backlog. Despite some still needing to be processed, Operation Fuel began taking on new applicants.

“Not everyone is going to get approved because our resources are dwindling at this point and because we’ve doubled the amount of assistance that we typically serve in a season, our resources are now getting constrained,” Watson said.

The increase in demand is attributable to various factors, including inflation, politics and recovery from COVID-19, officials said.

If the organization becomes inundated with applications again, it may need to put a second pause on applications for the season.

“Our organization has been built on being reliable and being able to serve the population that need assistance with energy, so it was really important for us to reopen,” Watson said. “Unfortunately, it's just been one of those types of seasons that we’re just not going to be able to remain open for the entire season as we want to and as we expected.”

Norwalk homeowner Andrew Todd began using Operation Fuel for heating assistance in September.

Todd, who is currently unemployed, heard about the organization through a friend and received $500 which supplied about three-quarters of a tank of oil.

“Thank God we had a warmer winter, I didn’t need that much,” Todd said. “The new year started and I re-applied. I got an email from the woman I've been dealing with and she called me and said, ‘Hey you can reapply.’ They told me what I was getting it and I was like, 'That’s fantastic,' so I got a full tank.”

Given the rise in utility costs, Todd was unsurprised to learn the number of Operation Fuel applicants significantly increased.

“I think they’re going to triple at this point, but people need help,” Todd said. “I don’t need it as a permanent thing and for people like me, in my situation …Things happen, you need a little help, a little boost and they were there and I can't thank whoever put that program into effect enough.”

Connecticut residents can apply for energy assistance by submitting a recent pay statement and utility bill or the name and contact information of their utility provider.

This story has been updated.

Abigail is Connecticut Public's housing reporter, covering statewide housing developments and issues, with an emphasis on Fairfield County communities. She received her master's from Columbia University in 2020 and graduated from the University of Connecticut in 2019. Abigail previously covered statewide transportation and the city of Norwalk for Hearst Connecticut Media. She loves all things Disney and cats.

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