I was astonished to learn that nearly all of the nonprofit grassroots organizations I have worked with in L.A.'s low-income and homeless communities are completely in the dark about energy assistance subsidies. Not only did I find the organizations' leadership generally unaware of these programs, but energy assistance doesn't even cross their radar screen. Their lack of awareness means that the huge numbers of poor people they serve are also clueless about recent state attempts to help out with ever-escalating energy bills. I suspect there are two primary reasons for this general unawareness. First, homeless individuals have no use for 20 percent discounts on their energy bills or weatherization programs - unless they are offered weather-resistant tents or efficient ways to insulate their cardboard condos. Second, those who are marginally housed usually have their utility bills included in their rent. Thus, any benefits to be derived from low-income energy programs are moot. When I started to raise the issue, other glaring problems became obvious. I was taken aback by the response of the executive director of a grassroots organization that has successfully organized low-income and working class tenants - not homeless or transient individuals - around redevelopment, housing, and economic issues. I queried her in an e-mail about contacting a member, possibly a working class tenant of an apartment building mired in slum conditions, to interview about their experience with low-income energy assistance programs. The director wrote back, "Sorry . . . I don't know anything about this and [my organization] hasn't worked on it. If you and I don't know about it, I wonder who does, whether low-income people use it." Her response was typical. It raises the question of whether antipoverty advocates are conscientiously serving all the needs of their constituents by ignoring or being blissfully ignorant of energy assistance programs expressly designed to help low-income households with the perennial burden of paying gas and electric bills. In the face of higher energy costs that will be passed on to consumers at all levels, poverty-stricken households need to be made aware of energy assistance programs and encouraged to take advantage of them. But let me step back for a moment and outline the bigger picture. Regulators directed utilities to ease the burden of high energy bills this winter. The challenging task of informing and signing up low-income residents for energy assistance programs has fallen to social service providers. These providers are grappling with how to effectively reach and enlist qualifying struggling households. Thousands of eligible Californians are not signing up for help or are stymied by the assistance programs' requirements. "The program is good, but number one, they need to tell more people about it. And number two, to borrow a phrase from McDonald's, they need to 'supersize' it. They tend to run out of funding by the end of February, "said Frank Tamborello, organizer with the Los Angeles Coalition to End Hunger and Homelessness. "People understand and will apply for rebates for higher gas and electric bills. But discounts and weatherization programs benefit mostly homeowners and knowledgeable apartment tenants and not people living in nonprofit single-room-occupancy (SRO) hotels and for-profit residential hotels," added Tamborello. He is also editor of The People's Guide to Welfare, Health and Other Services. The cumbersome application process and inadequate funding have frustrated a number of low-income customers. "When I applied for help in paying my [utility] bill because they was going to cut off my gas and electricity because I fell a couple of months behind, I had to show them all this paperwork - rent receipts, past bills, my Social Security card and state ID, and a notarized statement declaring that my husband was a foreign national - before they would help me. And then, it took them about a month to pay my bill," said Arleen M., who is a part-time Los Angeles city employee. She is now wary about energy assistance programs. Even though prices did not skyrocket as much as 50 percent this last fall as expected, customers have to brace themselves for a 30 to 40 percent increase in their gas and electric bills this winter, according to the industry's own estimates. Spokespersons for Southern California Edison and SoCal Gas insist they are providing much-needed relief to low-income customers and expanding their outreach efforts. To mitigate the effect of higher gas bills on low-income households, SoCal Gas instituted California Alternative Rates for Energy (CARE). SoCal Gas boasts that since its inception 15 years ago, CARE has enrolled more than 1 million customers and saved them a total of $614 million in energy costs. Yet it admits that as of June 2005, 415,000 eligible residents had not enrolled in the CARE program. "We are committed to making sure that every eligible customer is enrolled and benefits from the 20 percent savings on their natural gas bill," said Michelle Mueller, vice-president of SoCal Gas's customer service program. "We have partnered with community groups throughout our service region to make sure customers who qualify, regardless of where they live, are aware of the CARE program and are encouraged to enroll as soon as possible." Peter Hidalgo, a spokesperson for Sempra Energy Companies, said 2005 was an unusual year because the CPUC changed the CARE income guidelines in late fall because of the increased cost of natural gas. Revising the guidelines from 175 percent to 200 percent of the federal poverty level allowed more eligible households to sign up for CARE. According to Hidalgo, in 2005, on the basis of the old 175 percent federal guidelines, SoCal Gas set a goal of enrolling 1,102,163 low-income customers in CARE and actually enrolled 1,149,859 eligible customers. For SDG&E, he said, the goal was 202,120, and more than 205,456 customers received assistance from CARE. Edison claims its Energy Management Assistance (EMA) program is designed to help income-qualified households conserve energy and reduce their electricity costs. Instead of discounts on electric bills, EMA offers weatherization services that repair and upgrade homes to keep them warm during the winter and cool during the hot summer. The program replaces energy-inefficient appliances such as aging refrigerators and air-conditioning units with efficient appliances that lower utility bills. SoCal Gas's CARE funds and Edison's EMA eligibility criteria are administered and distributed through local community-based organizations, assistance agencies, and government agencies. The Department of Community Services Development (CSD) under the California Health and Services Agency (CHS) administers the Low Income Home Emergency Assistance Program (LIHEAP), a federally funded program, and a series of other low-income energy programs. LIHEAP gives direct, one-time payments to those in need of emergency assistance in paying their utility bills (see sidebar). Jason Wimbley, manager of LIHEAP for CSD, admitted that the amount of funding that health services receive from the federal government will allow the program to help only 7 to 10 percent of all the eligible needy households this winter. He emphasized that LIHEAP money is strictly allocated: 5 percent for client outreach and education, 25 percent for weatherization programs, and the remainder to be used at the discretion of the contract services agencies to help clients throughout the state. Kathy Kifaya, director of Energy and Environmental Services for Community Action Partnership of Orange County (CAPOC), praises the efforts of the utility companies and LIHEAP. More than 80,000 people a year apply for energy assistance programs in Orange County. CAPOC is the prime contractor for SoCal Gas and CSD. It administers these programs, including everything from initial outreach to sign-up to implementation. "We're making progress in an expeditious manner with company referrals and reducing the time frame," she said. The program has been running since the 2000-01 energy crisis. At that time, more than 104,000 people in Orange County applied for energy assistance programs, she added. Improvements instituted include "reducing lag time with continuing resolution contracts, company referrals of customers to assistance programs by mail, and increased funding, although more funding is needed." Last year, her organization helped 1,400 families qualify for the weatherization program. In addition, it provided 600 households with CARE assistance. On the other hand, Roberto Ramirez, who runs CARE for the Brownson House Community Center, which helps residents in the San Gabriel Valley, said there is not enough funding for the program at present. Since November 2005, he has disbursed $10,000 in aid to more than 80 qualified families. The program officially opens this month. He anticipates that the requests for assistance will surpass the 250 households that he assisted last year by April 2006. There will, however, be no funding available until the next funding cycle. "They told me they ran out of money when I applied," said Bella Johnson of Hollywood, who lives on a fixed income. "I mean, what good is a program that is supposed to help poor people pay their utility bills if they run out of money before they can help you?" The grassroots organizations should learn a lesson from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. LAHSA, with the blessing and assistance of the L.A. City Council, authorized the Cold Wet Weather Winter Shelter Program to keep homeless people from dying in the streets of L.A. if the weather is unseasonably cold. This program has been a success because the outreach is extensive and ongoing. Organizations that have contracted with the energy companies to spread the word and enroll eligible households should be all-inclusive in informing their members and ensuring that they - the poorest of the poor among us - sign up not only for public assistance, health care, and legal advice but also for energy assistance programs to ultimately benefit the very people they profess to serve. - R. C. Mantley is the former editor of a grassroots organization's newspaper, Community Connection, and is currently the editor and publisher of Hard Times, a monthly publication highlighting the issues of poverty and homelessness.