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Charities are stepping up appeal for heating fuel aid

The struggles of the poor to pay heating bills are as common a part of a Massachusetts winter as lip-cracking cold and hazardous highways.

But advocates of fuel assistance say this year will be worse. With predicted heating fuel price increases near 30 percent, charities say they're more aggressively appealing to private donors to cover the rising costs.

This week, Catholic Charities joined other agencies that have stepped up private appeals and announced a fund-raising campaign that emphasizes emergency food and fuel assistance. The Rev. J. Bryan Hehir, president of Catholic Charities, said he expects the number of people seeking assistance to surpass the 150,000 the agency helped last year.

''I don't think you can pinpoint how bad it's going to be, but you can certainly know it's not going to be normal," Hehir said. ''We've got to do something different."

Heating oil costs in the Northeast are expected to rise 28 percent this winter, and natural gas prices are expected to rise 29 percent, according to Department of Energy figures released this month.

Heating oil prices have yet to reach those projections; they're up roughly 19 percent to an average of $2.36 per gallon from $1.98 last year at this time, according to the state Division of Energy Resources.

But bitter cold weather hasn't hit, and the well-publicized fuel supply disruptions from Hurricane Katrina have more people than ever seeking help for anticipated price increases, said Brian O'Connor of Citizens Energy Corp., which provides fuel assistance statewide.

''Anyone who's on the front line of serving people in need started getting calls back in July and August," he said.

Atwater said his agency already has 1,000 first-time applicants for fuel assistance this year -- equaling the number for all of last year.

Government has provided some relief. On Tuesday, the state Legislature agreed to assistance for some lower- and middle-income households, including tax deductions up to $800 for winter heating bills.

US Representative William D. Delahunt also helped broker a deal with the Venezuelan government to provide millions of gallons of discount heating oil to Massachusetts.

But advocates still anticipate a crush of requests for help. They also say the widely reported problems with fuel supplies and the projected cost increases may actually help raise awareness for fund-raising.

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