Butler County Emergency Relief Initiative (BERI)

In 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.

The Partnership
The BERI partnership involves multiple funders and conveners including United Way of Butler County, Community Action Association of Butler County, Butler County Human Services, Salvation Army Service Units, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and many churches in the faith-based community; program providers including Center for Community Resources and the Housing Authority of Butler County; as well as many other partners including public utilities, deliverable fuel providers, and the Area Agency on Aging, all of whom provide representation on BERI Advisory Committee.

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 the 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, 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 Single Point of Contact program.

The Results
The Utility Single Point of Contact fields over 4,000 calls annually, completes full intake assessments on approximately 1,300 households, providing case management and assistance with applications for government and private utility company programs while coordinating private assistance through BERI and other funders for approximately 250 households annually. 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. Clients’ contributions to their utility bills have grown from 0-2% in 2005-06 to over 40% in 2013 as compared to the community’s 60%. The community has not exhausted funding in the last eight years and in fact, maintains a reserve for disasters. And, the collection of client data has identified that 25% of callers do not have a high school diploma or GED, leading to an employment initiative; and that 21% of County residents heat with very costly deliverable fuels, leading to advocacy for better, more energy efficient affordable housing. Further, BERI’s efforts and advocacy resulted in securing $1 million in ARRA funds for weatherization for Butler County, and most recently this year secured $30,000 in PA Department for Aging funds for utility assistance for individuals over age 60.

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. Most importantly, this ongoing partnership reduces the duplication of human and social services, directly saving financial resources for nonprofits, churches, and government organizations. BERI has been established to be incorporated in-perpetuity to assist future and present Butler County citizens with heating and housing needs.

BERI Advisory Committee Members:
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
Mr. Bryan Colbert, Peoples TWP
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 
Mr. Dale Pinkerton, Retired
Ms. Allyson Rose, Butler County Human Services
Ms. Joan Tutak, Neighborhood Legal Services Association

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.

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