Bracing for a Cold Christmas

Georgia is a southern state, but it still gets cold, with lows in the next few days expected to dip below freezing.

K. Reed, who lives in the northeastern part of the state, will be able to ride out the cold in relative comfort for now -- her electric company hasn't shut off her heat even though she's past due on her bill. But Reed, who has been unemployed since May, 2008, doesn't know how long the company will wait and fears that one day soon, she'll fall so far behind that her home will turn cold.

"I can't afford to pay my phone bill and my electric bill and my mortgage all in one month," said Reed, who once worked as a real estate title examiner. "I've always got to pay my mortgage payment, so I have to let something slide each month."

Reed, 59, is one of millions of Americans who face the prospect of going without heat this winter. The National Energy Assistance Directors' Association (NEADA) projects that the number of Americans receiving federal and state heating aid will jump by 20 percent to 9.2 million this winter, even though some heating prices -- specifically, rates for natural gas -- have been dropping.

The expected increase reflects families struggling with unemployment, said Mark Wolfe, the executive director of the association, which represents directors running state branches of the federal government's Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program.

"We're seeing families that are newly unemployed, families that are long-term unemployed, some people have been unemployed for a year now," he said. "There's just so many people in a very tough situation."

Not everyone who applies for help will get it.

In the last government fiscal year, which ended this past September, just 8.1 million of the more than 44 million households eligible for aid from the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program received it, according to NEADA data released today. This, despite the fact that Congress had recently doubled the program's budget to $5.1 billion. Some 4.3 million households saw their electricity and natural gas shut off during the period, up about 300,000 from the year before.

"It's not a story of mean government or unfeeling government," Wolfe said. "The government doubled funding for this program a year ago and it turned out not to be enough."

'I Need Help Now'

For some, the problem lies not just in the availability of heating aid -- it's also about speed, or lack thereof, of getting it. Reed told Thursday that heating aid officials in her area told her they couldn't meet with her until February to start the application process.

"I need help now, not months from now," she said.

Betsey Sethares, the executive director of The Cape Cod Times Needy Fund, a charity based in Cape Cod, Mass., said the organization fields calls from local residents who are either waiting for heating assistance or even from those who don't qualify because their income is too high. (Federal guidelines mandate that states cannot provide federal heating aid to households with income that is greater than 150 percent of the federal poverty level or 60 percent of a state's median income.)

"We've got people worrying about whether they're going to be homeless or cold," she said.

Though the weather in Massachusetts is considerably colder than in Georgia, Bay State residents might have it easier in at least one sense -- Massachusetts and some other northern states impose a winter-long moratorium on utility companies, barring them from shutting off heat during the coldest months. Residents in southern states don't have such protections, Wolfe said.

But the moratorium is no cure-all either, said Sethares.

People who rely on oil heat, she said, are still left in the cold when their tank runs dry.