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Cold, recession ramp up demand for heating help

This winter's cold snaps, coupled with the lingering effects of the recession, have combined to create high demand for programs that help needy Long Islanders pay their heating bills, social-service providers say.

"We're definitely seeing an increase," said Liza Coppola, executive director of Community Action Southold Town in Greenport. CAST is one of the nonprofits that certifies applications for the federally funded Home Energy Assistance Program (HEAP).

Milton Cullum, HEAP coordinator for Nassau County, said so far this winter he has seen about 13 percent more people receiving assistance over last year's season.

"We expect [the numbers] to go up even more if this cold spell continues," Cullum said.

Not only are applications up this year, but they're coming from new places, Cullum said.

"We are getting more applications from more affluent areas in Nassau County - Garden City or Great Neck," he said.

At the North Fork Spanish Apostolate advocacy program in Riverhead, the number of people seeking heating help Monday astonished Sister Margaret Smyth.

"We have had nothing but lines here today," Smyth said.

The state of the economy, she said, has overwhelmed many.

"People who could have generally made it before and gotten through the winter lost their jobs earlier or had their hours reduced earlier, and as a result that threw off any kind of financial planning," she said.

Theresa Regnante, president and chief executive of United Way of Long Island, said donations to the group's Project Warmth have increased this season. The project helps people who are struggling to pay their energy bills.

Individual donations for the program reached $118,000 by December 2009; during the same period last year, the organization raised $87,000 from individual donors, she said.

"It's hitting home a lot harder for people in the general public that they know people who are struggling," Regnante said. "It's a little closer. It's not helping 'someone else' - it's helping people that I know."

The number of people applying for the program has also increased.

"The demand will probably exceed what we have," she said.

LIPA provides consumer advocates to help people apply for services to pay their energy bills, and National Grid said it creates payment plans for customers who are in arrears.

Also, LIPA voluntarily does not stop service to customers with overdue bills when the temperatures outside are freezing, a spokesman said.

National Grid said it follows the Public Service Commission's cold-weather guidelines, which include making special efforts to determine whether shutting off a delinquent account will cause harm to the residents.

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