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Phone rings busy at St. Lawrence County HEAP office

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CANTON — The St. Lawrence County Department of Social Services’s Home Energy Assistance Program is so inundated with calls for assistance that some people cannot get through on the telephone, which rings busy all day long.

“People are pouring in with emergencies,” Social Services Commissioner Christopher R. Rediehs said. “Not everybody gets a call back as soon as they would like. For someone not getting a call back, it’s very frustrating.”

The HEAP unit began taking applications Nov. 18 for the regular benefit, which ranges from $400 to $650 depending on heat source and income. The federal program helps low-income households pay their heating expenses.

Applications for emergency HEAP — a payment that ranges from $400 to $600 — began Jan. 2. Applicants have to demonstrate they are in an emergency situation, such as they have run out of fuel.

On average, the unit is handling 150 requests for emergency assistance daily. On a recent day this week, 262 people came to the Social Services office on Judson Street, and 113 of them were there for HEAP.

The unit is typically swamped with calls for assistance, but this year’s early cold snap may have added to the onslaught, said Bobbie J. Bessette, principal social welfare examiner.

“I think a lot of people are running through their fuel,” she said.

The inability to get through to the HEAP unit has put some people on edge.

“I thought the HEAP department was there to help people. My daughter has tried calling for three days now non-stop redial after redial and all you get is a busy signal. That is not right or fair,” one woman wrote in an email to the newspaper. “You try and keep your kids safe and warm and when someone does this every day of taking the phones off the hook, they are not better than someone causing child abuse.”

The phones are ringing busy because people are helping applicants, Ms. Bessette said.

“We have seven examiners for the entire county,” she said.

People who have left messages will be called back. The waiting time for a call back averages a day and a half, although it has taken some people three days to leave a message, she said.

People also can come to the Canton office for assistance.

“I don’t know which is more frustrating, to be on hold or being in the waiting room,” Ms. Bessette said.

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