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Rumford Couple Frozen out of Heating Assistance
01/22/2013   Reported By: Susan Sharon

Dangerously cold temperatures are expected overnight for the mountains and foothills of western Maine. And that's exactly where one family is trying to survive the winter in a fifth wheel trailer that hitches to the back of a truck. Lyn and Tom Messinese moved to Rumford in September with their 13-year-old son. On a fixed income, with few resources, the family applied for help from the Low Income Heating Assistance Program. But as Susan Sharon reports, they learned what some other Mainers are also discovering: Trailers, RVs and campers don't qualify for heating assistance under the rules.

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Rumford Couple Frozen out of Heating Assistance
Originally Aired: 1/22/2013 5:30 PM
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 Duration:
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Lyn Messinese in her fifth wheel trailer in Rumford.

The couple say they bought the 36-foot-long, two-bedroom, two-bath trailer last April. They've been living in it ever since. Toward the end of the summer they brought it across the country from Washington to Maine and parked it behind Tom Messinese's parents' modest house on a hill in Rumford. Tom's mother is ill and the couple came to Maine to help care for her.

Lyn Messinese gives a brief tour. "I'm going to take you out here to our house - it's what we call our house, 'cause we live in it," she says.

heating 1The fifth wheel trailer is contained in a large "hoop house," an elongated, metal-frame structure covered with thick plastic. A generator provides electricity. And four, portable propane tanks provide heat. Lyn says there's enough to last another night.

But despite the fact that the trailer is valued at more than $70,000, contains modern appliances, a carbon monoxide detector and a washing machine, the Maine State Housing Authority does not recognize it as a permanent dwelling under the heating assistance rules.

"Campers weren't built to be permanent structures, to be heated at a sufficient amount over a long period of time," says Deb Turcotte, a spokesperson for the Housing Authority. She says every year a small number of people living in trailers who need heating assistance are told the same thing.

"The definition of a dwelling in the rules specifically excludes campers, primarily for safety concerns," she says. "We don't know how the heating systems would be set up in a camper."

And that's what the Messinese family learned after they applied for heating assistance and received a rejection letter last week. The couple say all they need is about $89 worth of propane.

"That's our main source for heating," Lyn Messinese says.

"Not only the heating," her husband adds. "It's the stove, it's the refrigeration, it's the hot water. It's everything."

For Tom, it's especially frustrating since he's a former heating and air conditioning technician who says he's disabled from a work-related injury. Lyn stays home to care for him. And the family depends on Tom's Social Security.

Lyn says she turned to the Rumford Town Office for help, and while she was able to get some limited assistance, she couldn't get propane. Instead, she says she was advised to move in with her in-laws.

heating 3"We don't want to. We're self-sufficient," she says. "They can't afford us in that house. It's bad enough they can go on their own. It's hard for them, just like everybody else in this town."

At the Rumford Town Office, a spokesperson in the General Assistance office says requests for help are up over last year. And at Community Concepts in the neighboring town of South Paris, Chief Operating Officer Laurie Winsor says so are requests for emergency heat.

"As the cold weather has hit us now, finally, we are seeing increased requests for people who are indicating they are without fuel and we work under the guidelines of the Maine Housing Authority to process those as quickly as possible," Winsor says.

Lyn Messinese says she and Tom considered abandoning their trailer for the winter and trying to find emergency housing. But then she learned that the wait to qualify for subsidized Section 8 housing in Maine is between three and five years.

"What are people supposed to do, Susan? Freeze? That's what I wonder," she says.

Over the weekend, the family found a temporary solution to their problem: The Salvation Army came through with a voucher that allowed them to purchase enough propane to heat the trailer for another few weeks.

Photos by Susan Sharon.

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