KINDRED, N.D. — Marvel Von Hagen and her love of 37 years were living the good life.
The 60-year-old woman built hotels for a living while her man worked as a plumber. The couple who have lived in their Kindred home for 29 years were never ones to ask for help, even after medical bills started to roll in for her back and his diagnosis of colorectal cancer.
But as money became tight, she sold many of her personal belongings and watched every penny. “We gave up what we thought was important in life, then you find out what really is important,” she said.
She heard from a friend about the low-income home energy assistance program, or LIHEAP, that provides federal funds to help eligible residents pay to heat their homes. Before Von Hagen applied for heating assistance this winter, she kept the house heated at 55 degrees.
Of the 55,358 households eligible for heating assistance in North Dakota, only 22 percent (12,331 households) received it in 2017, according to the most recent analysis by the National Energy and Utility Affordability Coalition (NEUAC).
In Minnesota, 393,788 households qualify for LIHEAP, and only 32 percent (126,149 households) received such assistance in 2017, according to NEUAC.
There are numerous reasons qualified residents may not apply for LIHEAP, said Ross Corson, former spokesman for the Minnesota Commerce Department, which administers the state's heating assistance program. Households simply may not know the program exists, others don’t want to be considered low income, and some feel they can “get by” and “should leave the money for needier households,” he said via email.
“There are not too many people who want to go in and say, ‘Hey, I need help.’ We’re a proud people,” said Brandon Kjelden, energy and rehab program coordinator for the Southeastern North Dakota Community Action Agency.
For Von Hagen and her partner, who wanted to remain anonymous for this story, pride played a role in their hesitation to seek assistance.
“When you have to make a decision between eating or paying the electric bill … I don’t know how to explain it,” she said. “It’s really hard to say, ‘OK, I need help,’ but it was getting to the point that I was going to lose the house.”
North Dakota received $20.9 million this year in LIHEAP funds. Minnesota was allocated $116 million this year for the program.
Minnesota includes tribal members in its figures. But North Dakota does not since tribal governments “are responsible for their own federal reporting,” said LuWanna Lawrence, a state Department of Human Services spokeswoman.
The Forum reached out to officials from each tribe in North Dakota but did not get a response. Tribal numbers from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees LIHEAP, were not available.
It’s hard to compare one state's LIHEAP numbers to national averages or other states' numbers since they can use different guidelines to determine who qualifies for the funds, said Michele Gee, economic assistance division director for the North Dakota Department of Human Services.
To qualify in North Dakota, household income must be 60 percent or less of the state’s median income, and there are different tiers depending on the number of people living in a home. The threshold in Minnesota is 50 percent or less of the state’s median income.
Given North Dakota's eligibility threshold, residents may think they don’t qualify when they actually do and may not apply, Gee said. Income for most of the LIHEAP homes in North Dakota is 40 percent or less of the median income.
“Once we get to those higher income limits, we see our numbers fall for participating households,” she said.
North Dakota can spend its unused LIHEAP funds on weatherizing homes that receive heating assistance. It's used up to $5.5 million for energy-saving services since fiscal year 2016, Lawrence said. In the 2017-18 heating season, more than 1,000 homes were weatherized, and 966 households received furnace cleaning, repair or replacement services, she said.
The Southeastern North Dakota Community Action Agency was at Von Hagen’s home last week to weatherize it. Crews worked to reduce leaking, install insulation and replace storm windows. The updates not only help save energy but provide health benefits by preventing illness, Kjelden said.
Von Hagen said she was overwhelmed by the people who weatherized her home. Now she can raise the house temperature to 69 degrees.
The couple said they will help as many people as they can since others helped them.
“It can happen to anyone,” she said of a life event that can cause hardship. “We can’t be anymore grateful.”
Need heating assistance?
In North Dakota, call 1-800-755-2716 or visit this state website.
In Minnesota, call 1-800-657-3710 or visit this state website.