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December 31. 2012 5:06PM

Granite State prepares for first cold snap of the winter

MANCHESTER - The largest homeless shelter in Manchester was readying its first-ever emergency overflow plan, and the administrator of the region's fuel-assistance program warned of a "perfect storm" of cold temperatures, high fuel prices, and a dismal economy as the Granite State prepares for its first cold snap of the winter.

New Horizons homeless shelter will prepare cots and sleeping bags at the day center if it appears its head count will exceed the capacity of 100 people, said executive director Charlie Sherman.

When temperatures are expected to turn bitter, outreach workers will visit riverside camps to convince people who normally avoid the shelter that they need to come inside, he said. That effort can add another 20 people at New Horizons for the night.

"They'll come in at the last minute and be out early in the morning. They won't even stay for breakfast," Sherman said.

The expected cold snap follows a week of two significant snowfalls, throwing cold water on any notion that this winter will be a repeat of the warmer winter of a year ago. Nighttime lows are expected to dip into the single digits for Tuesday and Wednesday. On Friday, winds will make the night-time low feel like minus-8.

The cold temperatures will also be a challenge for poor and moderate-income people who want to keep their homes warm.

Last year, the fuel assistance program provided $9.78 million toward heating bills in Rockingham and Hillsborough counties, said Louise Bergeron, energy manager at Southern New Hampshire Services, which administers the program in Hillsborough and Rockingham counties.

The advantage of warm temperatures was offset by higher heating oil prices, she said.

"I always say there are three parts (to the fuel-assistance season): the weather, the economy and oil prices. This year, it looks like a perfect storm in all three," she said. A family of four with annual income of up to $46,100 is eligible for the Low Income Heating Energy Assistance Program.

The program helped about 16,100 households in the two counties this past winter, and applications for this winter started to come in on July 1.

Bergeron said some applicants have exhausted their unemployment or cashed out their retirement accounts to stay in their homes. Most are in a worse shape than they were a year ago.

"The economy may be getting better for some, but I don't speak to those people," she said.

The average benefit is $700, about the cost of 200 gallons of oil. The average New Hampshire home uses 800 gallons of heating oil to keep warm over the winter, she said.

Heating oil, propane and kerosene are more expensive than natural gas, and Bergeron said she has heard of clients migrating to natural gas, either because a landlord has converted or they have moved to another apartment.

About 6,000 participants in the fuel assistance program received payments for natural gas last year, she said.

This summer, Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas, several social service agencies and New Horizons worked out the emergency overflow plan, Sherman said. He said the overnight capacity at the Manchester Street shelter is between 90 and 100 people.

"It was such a mild winter last year, yet we still had three or four days when we had more than 120 people in here," Sherman said. He said safety becomes a concern when capacity is exceeded at the Manchester Street shelter.

The overflow will be at the Homeless Day Center located at the corner of Pine and Union streets and provides a daytime shelter for the homeless.

Sherman said New Horizons will staff the overflow shelter, and staff will select the overflow. The clients will be those least likely to cause problems, he said.

mhayward@unionleader.com


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