Butler County Emergency Relief Initiative (BERI)

History
In August 2005, during the days following Hurricane Katrina, community leaders and ministers gathered to discuss how they might help evacuees who were migrating to Butler County, as well as respond to the rising fuel prices as a result of havoc along the Gulf Coast. With the help of the newly formed VOAD network (Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster), whose mission is to provide coordinated support in disasters, the process for helping Katrina families was seamless and the community responded.

To further the effort, the United Way Board of Directors established the Butler County Emergency Relief Fund and Initiative. The mission: To complement other agencies in meeting essential needs of Butler County residents whose lives have been affected by a significant emergency. Through public and church congregational appeals, the fund recognizes approximately $25,000 annually.

As the needs of Katrina families subsided, the impending winter utility crisis emerged. Human service agencies had long been working to address the heating needs of low-income residents in light of a shrinking pool of resources and rising energy costs. Agencies were overrun with calls from people they could not help, there was duplication of service and abuse of precious resources, and a lack of coordination and communication among providers and the faith-based community, creating an environment of frustration and distrust.

BERI is also available to assist in times of emergency. On July 5, 2017, a storm dropped several inches of rain in the West End of Butler over a very short period of time. The subsequent flooding had a huge impact on the people of that area with approximately 100 homes experiencing damage including two homes which were destroyed. Through BERI and the incredible generosity of the community, more than $40,000 was raised to support flood relief efforts. As of October 2017, 14 furnaces and 6 hot water tanks had been purchased and installed for people who had lost theirs in the flooding. Additionally, 5 dehumidifiers were given to families in need and some minor repair work was completed in the initial aftermath. The work to assist those affected is ongoing and 100% of the funds raised to support flood relief efforts will be used to help those who experienced damage as they seek to repair and rebuild. 

The Partnership
The BERI partnership involves multiple funders and conveners including United Way of Butler County, Butler County Human Services, Area Agency on Aging, Community Action Association of Butler County, and many churches in the faith-based community. Program providers include Center for Community Resources, the Housing Authority of Butler County, Catholic Charities, The Lighthouse Foundation, St. Vincent de Paul, Salvation Army. Additional partners partners include public utilities, deliverable fuel providers, Butler County Assistance Office and PA 2-1-1 Southwest.

Center for Community Resources, a 501c3 human service agency, provides the Utility Single Point of Contact (USPOC), a county-wide, free phone line and service for those seeking assistance with heating and utility payments. The agency also provides the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program to help clients secure tax credits and recognize savings on tax preparation and refund anticipation loan fees and interest, providing income for fuel and utilities.

The Housing Authority of Butler County and its 501c3 subsidiary, Butler County Home Ownership, provides the Supported Housing Opportunities Program (SHOP) which provides a three-part program including financial literacy training through Butler County Community College; a better renter’s course; and housing counseling. Clients earn a match to their savings that may be put toward utility payments or housing costs. This organization also oversees the Housing Assistance Reform Plan (HARP) which is a step-down program that requires clients receiving utility assistance through the Utility Single Point of Contact to seek housing counseling before receiving any further assistance.

United Way of Butler County manages the BERI fund and advisory committee that brings the faith-based community, utility and fuel providers, local agencies, and governmental entities to the table monthly in order to meet with all the partners to solve problems, set goals, and provide resources to address problems and goals. United Way also provides funding for the Utility Single Point of Contact (USPOC) and Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) programs.

The Results

The Utility Single Point of Contact (USPOC) fields over 1,400 calls for assistance annually and completes full intake assessments on approximately 700 households. USPOC also provides case management and assistance with applications for government and private utility company programs while coordinating private assistance through BERI and other funders for approximately 500 households annually, with BERI helping nearly half. Those that are not assisted through BERI are referred to Dollar Energy, LIHEAP, PUC, and Utility Universal Services programs. BERI and Center for Community Resources work year round to focus on helping families become more self sufficient and financially stable. 
Clients contributed $24,983 or 34% toward the $72,709 in utility debts paid in order to prevent shut-offs or provide emergency deliverable fuel. This initiative and partnership allows resources to stretch farther and is a clear demonstration that individuals are taking more responsibility in becoming self sufficient.  In addition, the Housing Assistance Reform Plan (HARP) program suggests steps that clients should voluntarily take to improve their financial stability.  To receive further assistance, individuals are required to participate in housing counseling, employment counseling, or financial literacy training.  
 
This diverse coalition removes communication barriers between nonprofits that are directly serving clients, eases the concerns of local and county governments who want to see tax dollars being used prudently, and brings community-minded businesses and churches to the table who want to donate their time and money to a worthwhile cause. Agencies once inundated with calls, now refer callers to USPOC and can focus on more intensive case management in housing, financial literacy education, and employment preparation and placement. Most importantly, this ongoing partnership reduces the duplication of human and social services, directly saving financial resources for nonprofits, churches, and government organizations. The community has not exhausted funding in the last twelve years and in fact, maintains a reserve for disasters. BERI has been established to be incorporated in-perpetuity to assist future and present Butler County citizens with heating and housing needs. 
 
2017 STATS
 
67% of callers are employed
98% of callers have health insurance 
2% of callers collect unemployment 
2% of callers reported no household income
60% of callers rent their living space
48% of callers have an associates degree or higher
15% of callers are from single parent households
1,307 children were served last year 

 

The Emergency Relief Fund provides direct utility assistance and assistance with deliverable fuels, such as propane, kerosene and heating oil. The fund is accessed when all other sources have been exhausted and is managed by United Way of Butler County. A special Oversight Committee of community representatives monitors the use of the funds.

BERI Oversight Committee Members:
Chariman: Mr. Bryan Colbert, Peoples 
Ms. Lori Altman, Butler County, Human Resources
Pastor Joel Benson, Trinity Lutheran Church
Rev. Harry Bielewicz, St. Peter Parish; St. Paul Parish; St. Michael, the Archangel Parish
Ms. Karen Boltz, Salvation Army Service Saxonburg Unit
Commissioner Kevin Boozel, County of  Butler
Ms. Dawn Grochalski, United Way of Butler County
Mr. Charles Hawkins, Cranberry Area Diversity Network
Ms. Beth Herold, Area Agency on Aging
Honorable Marilyn Horan, County of Butler
Ms. Mary Kay Kelly, Butler Health System 
Ms. Janine Kennedy, Butler County Community Action
Ms. Haley Merchant, Center for Community Resources
Commisioner  Leslie Osche, County of Butler
Mr. Jim Panei, President UAW 3303 AK Steel
Mr. Dale Pinkerton, Retired
Ms. Allyson Rose, Butler County Human Services
Ms. Joan Tutak, Neighborhood Legal Services Association

To donate to the Butler County Emergency Relief Initiative, please send checks made payable to "BERI" to:

Butler County Emergency Relief Initiative
c/o United Way of Butler County
407A West Jefferson Street
Butler, PA 16001