A last-resort program that helped needy Long Islanders pay their home heating bills is struggling to restart after it ran out of money last week in the midst of a harsh winter.
Project Warmth, operated by the United Way of Long Island, stopped giving out heating subsidies on Feb. 22 - more than two months before it was to end.
The program has seen double the demand this season over last winter, said United Way spokeswoman Julie Robinson-Tingue. So far this year, the program has helped 1,173 families with heating bills, compared to 587 in the same period last year.
"We've exhausted our funds much earlier this year because of that," she said.
Project Warmth provided a subsidy for oil, electric or gas heat. Unlike the federal Home Energy Assistance Program, which benefits people with low income, Project Warmth serves those who are either ineligible for government assistance, or those who have already exhausted it.
United Way is raising money to continue the program, which costs $160,000 a month. So far, about $175,000 has been pledged. Because not all of that money has arrived at United Way, the program is unable to resume, Robinson-Tingue said.
As a large nonprofit, United Way of Long Island does have other funds, but Robinson-Tingue said that money is either directed by donors to other programs, or has been otherwise allocated.
Home heating oil prices on Long Island have risen this winter, while natural gas and electricity prices have remained relatively stable. But Robinson-Tingue said it has been a surge in need, rather than in energy prices, that has primarily stressed the program.
Social-service providers on Long Island met the news with chagrin.
Juana RodriguezGeigel, a program specialist at Family and Children's Association, said she receives dozens of calls a day from people who say they can't afford to heat their homes. "It's extremely important for a lot of people," RodriguezGeigel said. "Especially those who have lost their jobs, who are having trouble making ends meet."
Project Warmth's money woes come as more local households than ever are getting help through the HEAP program.
In Suffolk, 36,172 homes have received grants this winter of up to $600 to pay for heating costs through HEAP - up 17 percent from last year, said Roland Hampson, a spokesman for the Department of Social Services. And in Nassau, households that receive no government benefits other than HEAP have shot up 80 percent this winter compared to last - from 11,686 homes to 21,080, said Karen Garber, a spokeswoman for the Nassau Department of Social Services.
"It's a combination of a colder winter, a longer winter, as well as the economy," she said.
LI HEATING PROGRAMS
So far this year Project Warmth, operated by United Way of Long Island:
The federally funded Home Energy Assistance Program, or HEAP, is still taking applications for heating help.
In Nassau, contact the Education & Assistance Corporation, 516-565-4327.
In Suffolk, call the HEAP hotline, 631-853-8825.