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Red Cross Heating Fund Offers Relief During Coldest Months

When I talk to people they often say they had to decide between heat or eat, and that's not a decision anyone should ever have to make.

The coldest air in two years arrived and left western New York in January, bringing sub-zero wind chill temperatures and sporadic heavy lake-effect snow. In addition, the cold weather knocked out electricity for thousands in the eight-county area due to wind gusts of more than 50 mph.

In order to help low-income residents or those struggling to pay mounting electrical bills, the American Red Cross Greater Rochester Chapter offers a year around program to prevent heat from being shut off.

The American Red Cross and RG&E Heating Fund is an emergency assistance program, targeting those who are not eligible for government assistance initiatives such as the federal Home Energy Assistance Program. Each year applications are accepted for one-time emergency grants to provide help for families or individuals having trouble paying their heating bills. The Heating Fund offers a $600 maximum grant that would prevent disconnection for a 30-day period.

To be eligible, the household must have received a disconnect notice and be within certain income guidelines. For example, a single-person household cannot make more than $2,310 in gross income monthly, while a family of four cannot make more than $4,441 each month.

"People really use this program during the winter months where their electric bills can be hundreds of dollars a month and it's easy to fall behind in payments," said Bobby Ellis, lead caseworker for the Red Cross/RG&E Heating Fund. "When I talk to people they often say they had to decide between heat or eat, and that's not a decision anyone should ever have to make."

Residents who receive the grant are also eligible for the Matching Incentive Payment Program. If the resident pays up to $400 of RG&E bill, the American Red Cross will match that amount. Written proof of the payment to the utility company is required. The New York Public Service Commission said between Nov. 1 to April 15, any utility company must make a special effort to determine if shutting off any heat-related service will affect anyone's health.

In the past three years, fuel has increased from $1.60 a gallon to $3, which led to rising utility costs. While the economy is growing, it is not moving at the same pace of inflation.

"We are seeing an increase in people getting downsized, expenses going up and medication costs skyrocketing. The economy is still hitting people really hard," said Marjorie Beldue, assistant director of emergency services. “Many people need a program like this just to survive.”

And with large companies like Eastman Kodak going through bankruptcy court last year and other businesses cutting expenditures, there are fewer big corporations that can donate as much to keep the Heating Fund replenished to the same degree as previous years.

Red Cross officials say the most difficult target audience is seniors for several reasons. First, many are not aware of the program or the online application that offers basic information. However, another rationale is often the most daunting to overcome.

"Seniors are a very proud group," said Ellis. "They don't want any help and they don't want to take any public assistance. We have to explain to them that this is not public assistance."

For more information on the program, call (585) 241-4474. When prompted, give the name of the person on the utility bill, home address, the number of people in your household and other required information. Each person eligible for the program must set up an interview on Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday with no walk-in appointments available.

Red Cross officials urge residents against turning on and opening the oven all-day or using other hazardous means to provide heat for the house, which could lead to fires.

“We’ve seen too many stories where people lost their homes doing dangerous things because they couldn’t afford to pay their electrical bills,” added Beldue.

The Heating is Fund is for residents in Allegany, Cayuga, Monroe, Northern Livingston, Ontario, Orleans, Wayne and Wyoming counties.