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The extreme cold is placing a strain on those who provide food, shelter and heating oil to those in need.
Jill Davoll, marketing and communications director of the United Way of Southeastern Connecticut, said Monday the situation has gotten "scary" for Project Warm-Up, a heating assistance program that is expected to run out of funds by the end of the month.
"Project Warm-up is meant as a last resort when no other means of assistance is available for individuals and when all other means of support have been exhausted," Davoll said. "Therefore, if we cannot help through Project-Warm-Up, these individuals will be cold."
Davoll said $90,000 was budgeted for the program, which runs from Dec. 1 through March 15 and is funded through donor dollars and grants. On Thursday alone, staff approved $5,000 in grants.
As of Friday morning, Davoll said the program had helped 230 households. Last January, it helped a total of 206 households.
Davoll said the program has $15,000 remaining. Those who are given aid usually receive about 100 gallons in heating fuel, for which the program pays the oil company directly.
Davoll said for the last four years, the program has been able to help about 100 households during the month of February. This year it doesn't look too promising, she said.
"Given that temperatures are expected to remain below 20 degrees for at least the next week, we are extremely concerned about the individuals, many of whom are elderly or sick," Davoll said.
Tanya Barrett, senior vice president for United Way's 2-1-1 Health and Human Services, said most of the cold weather calls have been requests for shelter. She said the organization has received 350 calls since the start of the new year.
"The governor told folks to call 211 to find a place to stay, and we have been helping every caller get a spot," Barrett said of Connecticut's free information and referral service. "Because of the cold weather snap and extreme record-breaking cold many more people are calling as a result."
She said 211 has about 70 homeless shelters in its database, including New London's Homeless Hospitality Center.
Cathy Zall, executive director of the center, said when it gets this cold, they don't turn anyone away unless the person would present a danger to someone else.
Last Thursday, 78 people sought shelter, exceeding the 50-bed capacity. Zall said the center opened its overflow shelter at St. James Episcopal Church on Federal Street.
"What are our choices?" asked Zall. "Is it ideal that we are giving people a mat on the floor? Probably not. But in the winter there are consequences ... people could die."
Zall said those seeking shelter include men and women aged 18 and up. "Some of it is the stereotype of the person camping outside, but it's also the person who just got evicted or doesn't have a safe place to stay. There are 78 different stories."
Marcia Pierce, a volunteer at the Lord's Pantry, also at St. James, said she has seen an increase in the demand for food, especially warming food like spaghetti and proteins like meat and peanut butter. The pantry gets most of its food from the Gemma E. Moran United Way/Labor Food Center.
"People are coming and looking for more because they can't afford to pay their oil and heating so they are cutting back when they can," Pierce said.
The pantry is open every Tuesday from 10 a.m. to noon and requires a one-time voucher from Thames Valley Council for Community Action. On the last two Tuesdays of the month, dry goods are distributed.
Last Tuesday, the freezing temperatures kept people away and the pantry served only 58 people.
"Even though we didn't have as many people, the need is still great because they are asking for more," Pierce said. "It's getting kind of hairy. This is not the time of year when the food is plentiful."
To donate to either Project Warm-Up or the food center call the United Way at (860) 464-7281 or go online at www.uwsect.org/give and use the drop-down menu to indicate which program you want to help.
To donate to the The New London Homeless Hospitality Center go to www.nlhhc.org and click on the "Give Now" tab.