Jersey Journal

'I'd Rather Give Up Food' Than Borrow For Heat Bill

Aid exists for seniors, families — but they must ask

Jersey Journal — Friday, December 26, 2008

The Star-Ledger

On the first day of winter, William Sylvester was already panicking that he wouldn't be able to afford to heat his Kearny apartment.

Sylvester, 70, is a retired cop making $200 more than the maximum monthly income limit to receive most public assistance funds. This month, after being "hounded by people calling me from the utility company, telling me they were going to turn off my heat," he borrowed $140 from his son to pay down some of the $417 he owed to PSE&G.

"Borrowing from my son is a humiliation I don't ever want to repeat," said Sylvester. "I paid my bills for 40 years, but now it's come to this. I'd rather give up food than go through that again."

Winter has come in with a blast, and despite the drop in oil prices, many social services advocates fear that too many people will sacrifice their health to keep their pipes from freezing this season.

"We are absolutely concerned about seniors who are facing severe economic times," said Patricia Polansky, state assistant commissioner of the Division of Aging and Community Services. "We are afraid they will skimp on food or medicine rather than ask for assistance.

Last week, Gov. Jon Corzine approved a $22.5 million aid package supplementing the $88 million he approved for home heating aid in October.

The new package includes $10 million for those who earn too much to qualify for low-income assistance but might need temporary help. The aid will be distributed through the nonprofit NJ SHARES, which has already been flooded with applications.

The NJ SHARES program has no income limit, but is only for those who are facing financial crisis and have a history of good-faith payments of their utility bills. There are at least a half-dozen other assistance programs, but most are for low income.

Lack of income, however, doesn't have to be chronic to qualify, said Eileen Leahey, director of the payment assistance outreach program at PSE&G.

"Most people don't realize that some of the programs are based on last month's income," Leahey said. "It doesn't matter what you made last year if you didn't make anything last month. People may be eligible and don't know it."

She said the utility company is currently mailing 18,000 letters to customers at least three months behind in payments.

Heating oil dealers can refuse deliveries to customers in arrears, but "people who are having a tough time should talk to their dealers," advised Eric DeGesero of the NJ Fuel Merchants Association.

The New Jersey Citizen Action Oil Group offers a cooperative buying program that can reduce home heating oil prices.

Despite the range of aid programs, some seniors may be too proud or too confused to ask for help, experts noted, urging neighbors to be on the lookout for signs that a household is in trouble.

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