Forty-four people applied for the Low-Income Energy Assistance Program on Tuesday, the first day Lawrence's Social and Rehabilitative Services office accepted applications. Only 35 people applied during the first week of applications last year.
The program offers assistance to customers who meet income guidelines and who have been paying their recent heating bills. The Lawrence office of the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services office will continue receiving applications through March 30.
Shawn Burrell, an economic and employment specialist with SRS, said he anticipated a large increase in the number of people applying for bill paying assistance because of high gas prices paired with the cold.
Requests for help also have been heavy at Lawrence's American Red Cross office, which is organizing a program for low-income customers of Kansas Gas Service. About 7,500 customers will receive a 50-percent cut in their energy bills from January through June.
The office doesn't officially accept applications until Feb. 1, but workers already have sent out about a dozen information packets.
"There is a tremendous need out there, even larger than the program had expected," said Caroline Arter, Red Cross interim executive director. "A gentleman called me and said, 'My bill was $800 and my house is cold.'"
It's the same story with Warm Hearts, sponsored by six Lawrence social service organizations, which provides assistance to income-eligible utility customers. Andy Brown of the Ballard Community Center, who helps coordinate the program, said he's received between 15 and 20 applications each week during the last month, roughly double that of a typical year.
"Also, that doesn't reflect a lot of people who are paying their gas bill and coming in to get help on their water or other utilities," he said.
Elizabeth Peak, who works at Salvation Army, said her office was "constantly" receiving calls about Warm Hearts. The high heating bills have "hurt a lot of people," she said.
"It's overwhelming, getting their bill," she said. "It puts people into depression and makes them feel hopeless. They sit and cry instead of calling an agency."
But, she added, "There is hope, and they need to come to the agencies now when there is money."
-- Staff writer Terry Rombeck can be reached at 832-7145.