The vast Navajo Nation spans a land base over 27,000 square miles or roughly the size of the state of West Virginia. The latest population numbers of enrolled numbers are close to 300,000 members with more than 175,000 individuals living on the reservation. Programs such as LIHEAP are lifesaving in this part of the country where electricity and running water is still a luxury on much of the reservation and the average income is approximately $12,000 per year. Most families are the definition of the working poor, living paycheck to paycheck and dealing with the ever-increasing cost of home energy.
The LIHEAP program for the Navajo Nation is run out of Department of Family Services on the Navajo Nation. They administer many other programs, 10 in total ranging from emergency assistance and burial assistance to long term care and foster family recruiting for children. With a service index covering all ages from infancy to elderly with a special focus on vulnerable populations such as the elderly, disabled, and children the department with a staff of only 200 to cover a population base of over 200,000 they struggle to meet the ever growing need of assistance.
How does the program work for Navajo?
Provide services year round. Heating assistance is the most utilized part of the program. Many homes lack electricity and plumbing and utilize wood and coal for heating. Respiratory issue sufferers may use pellet stoves if they have electricity. Provide wood, coal, pellets, and natural gas. Section 8 housing may have electricity and natural gas. Those are few. Most users prefer wood and coal. During the summer some families do have air conditioning if they are newer in specific areas such as those where homes have been built under Joint Use Agreements. Cover 3 states Utah NM AZ. In addition to providing home energy assistance they do weatherization fixing doors, windows, roof minor repairs to assist in home energy efficiency this can include installing trailer skirting as many homes on the reservation are manufactured homes and lack basic skirting resulting in higher energy prices.
There has been some controversy surrounding wood and coal usage and the effort to move to a more sustainable and environmentally friendly alternatives however, with electricity not being a widely available resource wood and coal remains a viable solution. Pellet stoves being electricity dependent are also prohibitive where electricity is unstable or who cannot afford the cost of a pellet stove. Safety of wood and coal stoves remains a concern especially in manufactured homes. While there are specific wood, pellet, and coal stoves made for manufactured homes they can also be cost prohibitive.
Ms. Ambrose herself lacks electricity and water in her own home. So she knows firsthand how unforgiving the environment can be and in turn how critical programs are for LIHEAP users who depend on these funds for life saving heating and cooling.
LIHEAP numbers? Increasing/Decreasing?
On the Navajo Nation there are a large number of people who are eligible and who do not get assistance. The need is so much greater than the available funds. With increasing energy costs even less of the eligible people are helped but even then the help may only help for a month or so. They have a priority system: elders with disabilities, elders, disabled, families with young children, and single householders. Every year they send out notices that funds have been depleted.
How does the program let the public know when funds are available?
Strong media campaign via radio announcements and newspaper announcements as well as outreach at local chapter houses (community centers). Much of this has to take place in the Navajo language in order for non-English speakers to get information. Much of the elderly population does not speak English as a primary language, if at all.
2015 Assisted numbers:
- 4,000 assisted
2016 Assisted numbers:
- Close to 4,000 already (and its only July)
Tribally run LIHEAP programs are unique and differ from nonprofit run LIHEAP models. The Navajo Nation uses 150% of poverty guidelines as the eligibility guidelines due to the fact that most individuals qualify as working poor meaning they have jobs however, the simple act of getting to a full time job often entails traveling over 50 miles decreasing the value of the earned dollar. Average income is less than 12k per year, unemployment is rampant and most homes are single parent homes. In this very rural region of the country LIHEAP provides lifesaving assistance to those who need it the most.
Gladys Ambrose, LCSW (licensed clinical social worker) – Department Manager for Department of Family Services under the Navajo Nation Division of Social Services
Madelena Kee, LIHEAP Coordinator/Administrative Services Officer