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It's downright chilly in many Erie County homes this winter.

But those low thermostat settings are nothing compared to the chill in the hearts of people who -- for the first time -- find themselves asking for help in heating their homes.

From upscale Amherst to blue-collar Lackawanna and in cozy villages from Kenmore to Angola, record-setting numbers of county residents are swallowing their pride and standing in line for hours to seek public assistance with their heating bills.

For many of these residents -- especially in the county's middle-class and affluent locales -- it's a situation they never expected to be in.

But the ferocious winter of 2000-2001, with its frigid temperatures and sky-high gas prices, has them at the end of their rope.

"This is ridiculous," said Joelle Roberson, a well-dressed Williamsville wife and mother of three children -- ages 1, 4 and 7 -- who was turned away at an overcrowded Amherst sign-up day for the county-run Home Energy Assistance Program. Roberson, who arrived late and missed the cutoff, clutched the $303 monthly gas bill for her 1,700-square-foot home.

"Sixty-four degrees is the highest we keep the temperature," she said.

Michele Stoklosa knows the feeling. She's 29 and has three kids, too, plus a drafty home in Lackawanna and a $600 monthly gas bill.

"This is degrading. It's like being on welfare," said Stoklosa, standing in line for HEAP at the Lackawanna library. "This is the first time I've ever done this -- and it's going to be the last."

There are people like Roberson and Stoklosa all over Erie County and other Western New York counties, and officials say the crisis is far from over.

Winter will be here for weeks to come, and the crowds of people being turned away by the county for heating aid are far larger than the number being helped.

"There's nothing tougher than turning people away when you know they took the day off from work to come ask for help with their heating," said Charles M. Swanick, chairman of the County Legislature. "We're getting further and further behind. That's not helping people."

Two big factors are making this winter the toughest in recent memory for county residents trying to keep their homes warm.

The first is the icy-cold weather that arrived in late October, continued in November with a record snowfall and grew even colder in December.

Yes, January was warmer than expected. But February has seen a return to frigid temperatures. On Thursday morning, during the HEAP sign-up session in Amherst, temperatures were in the low 20s, with a cutting wind.

The second blow is the sky-high price of natural gas.

Gas prices for consumers skyrocketed to stunning levels during 2000, and though National Fuel Gas' rates dropped 24 percent this month -- to $12.15 per 1,000 cubic feet -- local customers are still paying prices that are 54 percent higher than last February.

Add it all up, and -- it really adds up.

"This has been a really difficult winter for consumers. We in the industry recognize that this is highly unusual," said Julie Coppola Cox, a National Fuel spokeswoman.

At National Fuel, that means phones are ringing off the hook with people worried that their heat will be turned off. The gas company is directing people to the county's HEAP office and local charities in ever-growing numbers.

"It's very clear," Coppola Cox said, "that there are people who never needed help before who are forced to ask for it this year."

Helping pay for heat

Proof of the record number of people in need of heating help this winter is in the county's stack of backlogged paperwork.

The Home Energy Assistance Program -- a federally funded program administered by the county -- is the main source of help for residents who can't pay their heating bills. This year, it is hopelessly swamped.

Erie County energy officials said they expect the program to disburse close to $30 million this year -- an amount equal to the annual budget of the entire Buffalo & Erie County Public Library system.

"This year is a record as far back as any records I can find," said Kevin Duggan, Erie County's director of energy programs.

The situation is the same in other Western New York counties such as Chautauqua and Niagara.

In Niagara County, HEAP applications have quadrupled since last year.

"We're swamped," said Sharon Sloma, the county's deputy director of social services. She said 4,635 households in Niagara County had been helped by Feb. 1, a huge jump from the 910 households aided by the same point last year.

And in Chautauqua County, Social Services Commissioner Edwin J. Miner said HEAP applications are up so much that his department is adding temporary staff members to battle the onslaught.

"It's bad. We're weeks behind," Miner said. "We're just going to do the best we can to muddle through this year."

Consider Erie County's situation:

This week, the number of applicants interviewed by county workers since the start of the HEAP season, Nov. 13, hit 10,000, an unbelievably fast pace compared to 2000, which had about 6,000 applicants for the whole season. Some applicants apply for HEAP more than once, but benefits are limited after a certain point, depending on household size, income, whether a vulnerable individual is in the home and other factors.

So far this winter, 43,320 checks have been mailed to needy residents. That far exceeds the 27,766 checks that were mailed out in the same period last year.

The HEAP payments included in that record number of checks have totaled $11.5 million, up from $7.3 million in the same period last year.

About 4,200 letters are in limbo at the county's Rath Office Building, waiting for county workers to mail them. The letters will tell anxious residents whether they will receive HEAP assistance -- or if they have been denied.

"We have never approached this magnitude this quickly," said Duggan.

He said that, with the current backlog, it would take 686 hours of uninterrupted work time to wade through HEAP's backlogged piles of paperwork.

Which basically means that -- for many needy residents -- the heating aid won't arrive until summertime.

Lines in Amherst

The first people to arrive for a HEAP sign-up day Thursday at Amherst Town Hall came at 4:50 a.m. They sat in their cars for hours until the building opened.

By 8 a.m., the 75 available slots were nearly taken.

By 8:30, groups of people -- including pregnant women, mothers with small children and elderly people -- were being turned away. HEAP outreach sites can take only 75 applications a day, and the list was full. One older woman in a purple coat leaned against a wall in the hallway, softly crying.

"It's ridiculous. I did everything they said. It said it started at 9 a.m., and I came at 9 a.m.," said an upset man in a business suit and overcoat, carrying a $550 National Fuel bill. He did not want to give his name.

"I've never done this," the man admitted, after HEAP workers turned him away. "But I've been in some bad conditions lately. We had a death in the family. . . . It hasn't been easy. Now I've got to get back to work."

Annette Beck of Amherst also arrived too late. She said she and her 15-year-old daughter have been switching bedrooms in their home, taking turns on the upper floor -- where there's more heat.

"It could be worse, right? That's what I keep telling myself," said Beck, whose $350 gas bill is quadruple what she paid at this time last year.

The situation in Amherst has been mirrored at other HEAP outreach sites throughout the county -- from West Seneca to Buffalo to Cheektowaga.

"It takes my husband's check and mine just to pay our gas bills," said Hamburg resident Diane Roberts, 54, who stood in line in Lackawanna earlier this week. On workers' compensation from her job at Kmart, Roberts said she and her husband can't afford heat on the $1,100 they live on each month.

"I keep the heat turned way, way down," Roberts said. "I have $3 to live on for two weeks. It's sad -- it makes you feel like you aren't worth anything."

HEAP regulations also prove frustrating to many first-time applicants, who are often unaware of the extensive paperwork required for the funding: landlord statements, proof of rent payments, 1099 statements of bank interest earnings, proof of identity, Social Security cards.

There are income limits for HEAP funding as well.

The limits -- which were increased by 35 percent from last year to this -- are now set at 60 percent of the state median income level, said Duggan, the county's energy director. For example:

For a one-person household, the income limit is $1,486 per month in gross income.

For a two-person household, the limit is $1,943 per month, gross.

For a three-person household, the limit is $2,400 per month, gross.

For a four-person household, the limit is $2,857 per month in gross income.

Duggan said the increase in the income limits this year is also fueling the enormous demand for HEAP funding.

"They're not extraordinary levels by any means. But that extra $300 a month opens it up to a whole group of people who hadn't been eligible before," he said.

Few other options

There are few other places people can turn for help in paying their heating bills.

One option is to work out a payment plan with the gas company, so that payments can be spread out over time and paid on a budget. National Fuel has helped many customers with that option this winter, according to company spokeswoman Coppola Cox.

There are two other places people can turn to as a last resort: the Salvation Army and Catholic Charities.

Both charitiable organizations help administer money from the Neighbor-for-Neighbor Heat Fund, a pool of money supplied each year by donations from National Fuel customers and private sources. The fund is designed to help those 55 years or older and households that include disabled people or people with medical emergencies.

Last winter, the fund helped 495 families with grants totaling $138,697.

This year, both organizations expect to be even busier -- especially later this winter when HEAP funds traditionally start to dry up.

"When people realize it's really not going to go away, we'll be getting the calls," said Jan Robinson, chairwoman of the heat fund at the Salvation Army. "People will still see a large balance in April, and that's when we'll get hit."

Meanwhile, the Erie County Legislature has approved the addition of up to 17 extra HEAP sign-up days around the county based on some extra federal funding that the county recently received. Dates and locations for the sessions have yet to be scheduled.

Legislators are also taking measures to help fix some of the root causes of this year's heating crunch.

Swanick, D-Kenmore, said he is sending letters to the federal and state governments, petitioning for relief for county residents on taxes on home heating oil. The Legislature also will be arguing against the high prices of natural gas for consumers, he said.

"We can't solve this year's problem," Swanick said. "But we cannot have this happen again next fall."

For information about HEAP and the Neighbor-for-Neighbor Heat Fund, call the county's HEAP Hotline at 858-7644; the Salvation Army at 883-9800; or Catholic Charities at 856-4494.

Nine dates set to apply for heating aid

There are nine HEAP outreach days scheduled for sites around Erie County in coming weeks. The sessions officially start at 9 a.m., but applicants are advised to arrive very early to secure one of the 75 available spots, since the lists are almost always closed well before 9 a.m.

The Erie County Legislature has also approved funding for 17 additional sites, but those dates and places have not yet been determined.

The nine upcoming sites are:

Monday: Second Temple Baptist Church, 812 E. Delavan St., Buffalo.

Tuesday: Kenmore United Methodist Church, 32 Landers Road, Kenmore.

Wednesday: FISH of East Aurora, 960 Main St., East Aurora.

Thursday: Elma Senior Center, 2271 Girdle Road, Elma.

March 6, Depew Village Hall, 85 Manitou Drive, Depew.

March 7, William-Emslie YMCA, 585 William St., Buffalo.

March 8, Northtown Plaza, 3131 Sheridan Drive, Amherst.

March 12, Old First Ward Community Center, 62 Republic St., Buffalo.

March 14, Grand Island Nike Base, 3278 Whitehaven Road, Grand Island.

For the Northtown Plaza HEAP session, which is at the district office of Legislator William A. Pauly, R-Amherst, applicants are asked to call for an appointment. The office number is 836-0198.

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