NEW BRITAIN, Conn. (AP) — New Britain residents told U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy on Tuesday that they're worried about losing federal heating assistance if the "fiscal cliff" becomes reality.
"If they take ... this emergency help from us, they're just going to make things worse," Caroline Fragoza, a 31-year-old single mother of two, told Murphy.
Murphy, who will become a U.S. senator next month, met with nearly 20 city residents and nonprofit group leaders at Human Resources Agency of New Britain, a social services organization that helps about 6,000 people a year with energy assistance.
He vowed to fight the looming $285 million nationwide cut to the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program that would happen under the fiscal cliff, which is a series of automatic spending cuts and tax increases that will go into effect Jan. 1 if Congress and the president don't act. The program served nearly 9 million Americans last year.
The cliff would cost Connecticut $5.6 million of the $79.5 million it's scheduled to get this fiscal year from the heating aid program, which helps nearly 120,000 households in the state.
"If we go off the fiscal cliff, people will freeze in Connecticut," said Murphy, a Democrat from Cheshire. "I just want everyone — Republicans and Democrats in Washington — to understand that this isn't just about the numbers, that this is about people's lives."
Murphy hopes Congress can reach an agreement to avoid the cliff by the end of the month. He planned to fly back to Washington later Tuesday.
As Murphy was talking to the group, Charise Kirk was in a nearby room applying for heating assistance. The single mother of five from New Britain said she's disabled because of a back injury and struggles to make ends meet.
"It's hard now to pay for your utilities," the 39-year-old Kirk said. "It's rough without heating assistance. I don't know where (else) I would go for help."
Merlyn McGhie also went to Human Resources Agency on Tuesday to make an appointment to discuss getting heating assistance. The 53-year-old New Britain resident uses a wheelchair, relies on her Social Security benefits to get by and doesn't want the heating aid to be cut.
Advocates for low-income families say it's troublesome that federal officials have cut the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program to $3.5 billion from $5.1 billion over the last two years while demand has been increasing. The fiscal cliff adds to those worries.
"It's really depressing as a provider of services," James Gatling of New Opportunities, a community action group in Waterbury, told Murphy. "We really don't know what's going to happen."
Murphy said there have been 59,000 applications under the heating aid program in Connecticut so far this year, a 13 percent increase over the same time last year. He said he was going to bring the stories he heard Tuesday to Washington and share them with fellow lawmakers.
"I'm going to fight like hell for LIHEAP funding," Murphy said. "This is about the disabled 40 year old, the senior citizen living on a fixed income, about the laid-off Hartford executive who has nowhere to go. This economy has affected everybody of all political persuasions, of all religions, of all ethnicities, and people need help until this economy gets back on its feet."
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