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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

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And I'm Michele Norris.

For many people in the U.S., the main reason to keep an eye on the price of oil is not based on what it might cost to fill up your car, it's because the price of oil determines how much it will cost to heat your home. In a rather chilly state of Maine, an increasing number of people are struggling to afford heating oil. Low income heating assistance funds are running low and advocates for the poor are warning of a crisis.

NPR's Anthony Brooks reports.

ANTHONY BROOKS: Lorraine(ph) and Al Hill(ph) are retired and live in a mobile home in the town of Buxton, Maine about 20 miles west of Portland. This week, the fields around their house glisten with fresh snow, and the temperature dropped below 15 degrees. The Hills have four dogs to keep them company in their house, which is nice and warm on this day. Lorraine has leukemia, Al suffers from emphysema. And they've been struggling to pay for heating oil which has now topped $3 a gallon, a dollar higher than a year ago.

Mr. AL HILL: People just can't afford it anymore. I mean, unless you, you know, you got a job, (unintelligible) social security or a fixed income or whatever. They won't give up oil, not at this price.

BROOKS: For a while, the Hills got help from the Federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. But when that ran out, Lorraine Hill says they didn't know what to do.

Ms. LORRAINE HILL: It's like me, I'm on social security and I have to depend on my medicines. I take 13 pills a day plus my husband takes about that much. And it's either buy oil or pay my bills.

BROOKS: Really, it was that serious?

Ms. HILL: Yes.

BROOKS: You have to really make a choice like that?

Ms. HILL: I do.

Mr. HILL: Yeah.

BROOKS: As you can see, it's Christmas time. I didn't put no lights up, I don't put decorations up, I can't afford it. And I can't afford Christmas.

BROOKS: Fortunately, the Hills could turn to a local charity here in Buxton called Keep the Heat On. The program provides about $15,000 a year worth of heating fuel to about 50 elderly residents of Buxton.

Ed Newell, a retired school principal, started the program and used a bottle-recycling campaign to raise the money. He came out today to make sure the Hills are staying warm.

Ms. HILL: If it wasn't for you people, I thought we wouldn't have heat.

Mr. ED NEWELL (Founder, Keep the Heat On Program): It's there if you need it. So don't be afraid to call.

Ms. HILL: All right.

BROOKS: Newell began the program two years ago after some of his neighbors began raising money to help victims of Hurricane Katrina.

Mr. NEWELL: And I thought, well, gee, we're going to have some cold winters. And we need to help some people in our own community. I mean, a lot of these folks are just in the cold. You know, our town is very generous that way.

BROOKS: Newell says the program can still help everyone in town who needs it. But with the price of heating oil running so high and more people in need, the program has cut back on what individual families receive. This is the story across this frigid state where 80 percent of the homes are heated with oil or kerosene which costs even more.

Ms. SUZANNE McCORMICK: So many more people are asking for help. People are calling sooner. More people are calling and that's happening statewide.

BROOKS: That's Suzanne McCormick who runs a county office that administers the Federal Low Income Fuel Assistance Program. She says demand for help is way up this year.

Ms. McCORMICK: This time last year, we had only taken about 2,300 applications from families. Already, we've taken 4,400 and that's about as many as we did in total last year. And there's a real sense of panic in people. And I think that's what's most frightening, it's because they don't have other resources.

BROOKS: McCormick says the federal program helps about 47,000 families in Maine with an average benefit of about $400. If needed, they can apply for a second emergency benefit. But when that's exhausted, McCormick says it's unclear where they go next.

Ms. McCORMICK: That's a million-dollar question. And it's the question that, when you talk to families, is the most disheartening, it seems like families don't have other places to turn.

Senator SUSAN COLLINS (Republican, Maine): I view it as a crisis for many low-income people.

BROOKS: That's Senator Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine. Along with Senate colleagues from the Midwest, she's pushing for a $1 billion emergency increase to the Federal Fuel Assistance Program.

Sen. COLLINS: We truly are facing an emergency in the Northeast, Midwest and other cold-weather states because the cost of heating homes has never been higher than this winter. Regrettably, there's simply isn't adequate funding to cover even very low-income people.

BROOKS: Today, Collins called on President Bush to release some $580 million in contingency funding for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program. Advocates for those in need say that would help, but they say the pending crisis will also require more community organizing like Buxton's Keep the Heat On Program to ensure that everyone in Maine stays warm this winter.

Anthony Brooks, NPR News.

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