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Many of the Swannanoa Valley’s poorest residents will be spending additional money of gas this fall to drive to Asheville for heating assistance they used to get at home.

A reorganization of the way the state distributes heating assistance money to counties cut Swannanoa Valley Christian Ministry out of the loop. The money it has gotten every year to help clients is now going to Eblen Charities in Asheville, Buncombe County’s sole distributor of heating assistance money from the state Department of Health and Human Services. 

Eblen Charities will also process heating assistance applications previously taken by Asheville-Buncombe Community Christian Ministry. Assistance is still available to qualifying Valley residents. They just have to go to Eblen Charities to get it.

Recipients can receive up to $600 in state heating assistance per season, and more from the ministry as long as the heating money lasts. The money can’t be used for kerosene or firewood, limiting its practicality for some households (in those cases, the ministry helps with its own money).

Last heating season, Swannanoa Valley Christian Ministry helped 524 households – nearly 1,300 people – in homes that span the Valley from Ridgecrest to East Asheville’s Riceville Road area, Cheryl Wilson, the ministry’s executive director, said.

During the last heating season (Nov. 1-March 31), the ministry used $116,000 in state crisis intervention money helping people heat their homes. It also spent about $36,000 of its own money contributed by people, churches, businesses and others in the area for heating assistance, Wilson said. The ministry’s fuel fund also receives support annually from the Deck the Trees Christmas tree display at the Monte Vista Hotel.

The number of households helped with heat stays about the same every year when it isn’t increasing slightly, Wilson said.

“We just see more and more families and individuals struggling because of low-paying jobs and no affordable housing,” she said. “If something happens to their car or a child is sick and they miss work, one little bump in the road can be a disaster.”

Any added expense makes it even more difficult for families who receive heating help, generally defined as those making 150 percent of the federal poverty level ($3,075 a month for a family of four). The cost of gas for a heretofore unneeded trip to Eblen Charities in Asheville can be a big barrier to the ministry’s clients, Wilson said.

That’s why it distributes gas vouchers to qualifying clients and helps them with occasional car repairs. Most of them are elderly or what Wilson calls the “working poor” who, despite working more than one job, “just can’t make it.”

“Some of our clients have transportation issues coming to see us here, so going to Asheville is going to be hard,” Wilson said. Eblen has agreed to send someone to the ministry’s offices on North Ridgeway Avenue in Black Mountain one day a week to help clients apply for the heating money. But that person will be able to see only six to eight clients a day, limiting the number who will be able to avoid the trip to Eblen Charities, located in Westgate Mall in Asheville.

Given human nature, some clients will wait until the cold hits to apply or they won’t remember or know they’re nearly out of fuel until it’s nearly too late, Wilson said. Some will wait until their electricity is nearly cut off before asking for help, making the trip to Asheville more urgent than if they could have continued coming to the ministry offices, she said. Many clients will have a hard time getting to Asheville because they can’t get a ride or can’t get off work.

On Oct. 21, three area churches – Christ Community Church, First Baptist Church of Black Mountain and First Baptist Church of Swannanoa – will go to certain ministry clients to weatherstrip doorways and put plastic on windows, Wilson said. Christ Community Church started the initiative last year with 11 households.

On Oct. 21, trees that are cut down to clear the land for the ministry’s new duplexes for homeless women and children will be hauled to a field in Swannanoa for cutting up and delivering to 12 homes that heat with wood, Wilson said.

Year-round, Swannanoa Valley Christian Ministry accepts donations to help clients with electric and water bills; rent, mortgage and medical assistance; eye exams and glasses, among other services. People donate clothing, food and money all year, often designating their contributions for the pantry, heating assistance or whatever. On Sunday, Oct. 8, some 500 people are expected to walk for money that supporters have pledged to the ministry through the annual event, Walk For Hunger. (Register by contacting the ministry at 669-9404 or svcmdirector@gmail.com.)

To contribute to the ministry’s heating fund or to any of the services it provides, mail checks to Swannanoa Valley Christian Ministry, PO Box 235, Black Mountain, NC 28711. Or stop by its office on North Ridgeway Avenue.

Services are sorely needed. The ministry has spent about $6,000 more on food for clients than the $25,000 it had planned to spend by this time of year, Wilson said. Each month it sees 25-30 new clients. And now winter is coming.

“If it’s really cold winter, we know that we have to do more assistance,” Wilson said. “We always pray for a moderate winter.”

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