LEWISTON — Mike Burke hears the stories of old folks dragging their mattresses into the kitchen to conserve heat in a single room and of whole families sleeping together under stacks of blankets in cold houses.
"There's hundreds and hundreds of stories out there," said Burke, chief executive officer of Community Concepts.
The need is bigger than his agency's wallet.
"The one thing we don't want to do is give them false hope," Burke said. "Usually, we fall back on the church and other providers. I'll tell you right now, they're strapped. They're trying to raise funds."
The pinch is what drew Burke and others from their offices Wednesday to host a summit of United Way agencies.
In part, the meeting was meant to be a response to the LePage administration's plan to cut $120 million from the Maine Department of Health and Human Services budget next year.
But, when Burke and the others met, more immediate problems arose.
Some social-service agencies worried that they might empty their heating oil assistance funds before the weather turns truly wintry. And they lamented the shrinking of the federal Low-Income Heating Assistance Program, known as LIHEAP.
"If anything, we're entering a new era of what community requests are," said Gil Ward of the Leeds-based Rural Community Action Ministry.
"Somebody came in last week with five children, and in the middle of the discussion, I asked, 'What's your most pressing issue at the moment?'" Ward said. "The response was, 'Lunch for my children,' and it was 11 o'clock in the morning."
People need food and heat and safe places to stay, Ward said. It's happening all at once.
"The governor's budget is only going to make it worse," said Joleen Bedard, executive director of the United Way of Androscoggin County.
Heat seems to be the biggest issue, agency leaders said.
"We're getting 200 to 300 calls a day from people looking for fuel assistance," Burke said. Of those, about 200 each week are categorized as emergencies, with little or no oil left. People are being asked to move in with friends and spend days in a warming shelter.
"We want to keep people in their homes, warm and secure," Burke said. But the money is scarce.
Last year, LIHEAP money typically bought a household enough oil to fill the average 275-gallon tank. With less money available and higher prices, the average benefit has dropped to about 80 gallons.
"Some fuel companies won't even deliver less than 100 gallons," Burke said.
In response, the agencies are working with fuel vendors. And they are trying to raise donations.
One notion is to create a "Check on your neighbor" campaign, said Betsy Sawyer-Manter, executive director of Lewiston SeniorsPlus.
Another is to create special days of caring among United Way agencies to encourage donations.
"Part of our goal is to raise awareness," Bedard said. "We've had tough winters before. We've had skyrocketing fuel prices. But it's not just one thing. People who were living on the edge are living in hopelessness."