As temperatures have plummeted and fuel costs have surged this winter, more people are having trouble paying to keep their houses warm.
The Energy Department's Energy Information Administration predicts that home heating-oil prices this winter will be more than 20 percent higher than the average of the past five years. Last week, natural gas prices hit record levels because of cold weather and speculation linked to the Iraq crisis.
In late January, President Bush ordered the release of an additional $200 million in Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) funds to help more than 4 million people nationally with heating costs.
In the Washington area, the District received nearly $538,000 in additional funding, while Maryland got $3.8 million and Virginia got $4.6 million.
The states divvy up the money among localities. Each state has its own income and other qualifications. In the Maryland Energy Assistance Program, for example, residents can make a maximum of $13,290 for a single-person household. A household of six can have an annual income of up to $36,390.
A separate program called the Washington Area Fuel Fund (WAFF), sponsored by Washington Gas and administered by the Salvation Army, helps with winter heating costs as well. LIHEAP funds began to be distributed in mid-November, while WAFF kicked in on Jan. 2, after some people had exhausted help available from LIHEAP.
WAFF, which began 19 years ago, is funded through donations, mainly from Washington Gas customers. The fund collects about $800,000 a year. Still, it's rarely enough to meet the need, said Ernest Holz, WAFF's director. The fund pays $400 directly to a customer's utility company for the season. When the money runs out, the fund turns people away even if it's still cold outside.
"I anticipate we're going to have a short season this year," he said. "We're already low on funds because of the cold weather and most likely economic conditions as well."
Income ceilings for WAFF are slightly higher than for LIHEAP. For example, a single-person household annual income can be up to $15,700.
In addition to these sources of heating help, many private groups that offer housing assistance help with utility payments on a one-time basis during a financial emergency.
Local utilities also offer aid. In most cases, when residents sign up for a state energy assistance program, they will be given information on utility company programs. Pepco, for example, requires that you be qualified for assistance for the state program before being referred to the company for assistance.
Once qualified, Pepco customers can get a portion off their electricity bills. Pepco also offers an extended-payment-date plan for those who rely on government checks such as Social Security, so that they can pay electric bills late if their checks don't arrive on time.
"If a customer calls us and says they're having trouble paying the bill, we'll work with them on a payment plan," Pepco spokesman Robert Dobkin said. "We want to help them find a solution so they can remain a customer."