LEWISTON – When there’s no kerosene in his tank, Steven Sasseville runs a portable heater to keep warm. Because it can poison his Auburn mobile home with lethal carbon monoxide, Sasseville cracks open his windows during the day and sets his alarm to wake him in case he falls asleep. He turns the heater off at night – poking the switch with a long stick as he huddles in bed, under blankets. He wakes twice in the middle of the night to take a hot shower, just to warm up.

Last month, Sasseville, who has young-onset Parkinson’s disease and receives disability payments, was denied help from the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, commonly known as LIHEAP. He made $30 a year too much to qualify.

With help from Community Concepts, Sasseville reapplied, offsetting his too-high income with medical expenses. He got $500 from the government to pay for heat.

But Sasseville was panicked in those days between his denial and reapplication. He had visions of spending the whole winter too frightened to fall asleep with his portable unit on, a whole winter of hot showers in the middle of the night.

“The accepting (money) part is hard because we don’t whine much in Maine, we don’t complain. We hunker down,” Sasseville told U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, on Wednesday. “But cold is cold.”

In a meeting at the B-Street Community Center in Lewiston, Sasseville, other LIHEAP recipients and tri-county community advocates asked Snowe to push for more federal heating funds so fewer Mainers will find themselves in such a situation this winter.

“They’re having to choose between food and medicine and heat,” said Mary Ellen Therriault, spokeswoman for Community Concepts in Auburn, which distributes LIHEAP funds in Androscoggin County.

LIHEAP provides $2.4 billion in heating assistance to low-income people across the country. Last year, Maine got about $24 million of that, giving more than 48,000 Maine households an average of $572 to pay for heat.

Congress voted to increase LIHEAP’s budget by $250 million this year, but President Bush vetoed the Health and Human Services funding bill that contained the extra money. Since LIHEAP’s budget didn’t pass, Maine didn’t get its annual funding. Instead, it received $7.2 million in emergency money. Congress is also pushing the federal government to release a second, smaller wave of emergency funding, a move that could give Maine another $1 million to $2 million to tide it over until a full LIHEAP budget can be passed, perhaps in mid-December.

But while Maine waits for federal funds, heating fuel costs skyrocket and more and more Mainers call on LIHEAP for help. Five years ago, Mainers would have paid about $850 for 800 gallons of fuel to heat their homes for the winter. This year, Community Concepts believes it’ll cost more than $2,500.

Advocates and recipients told Snowe they’re worried there won’t be enough money for everyone even when LIHEAP’s full budget is passed.

“We’re seeing more and more – I hate the term – working poor,” said Judy Frost, a program manager for Western Maine Community Action, which distributes LIHEAP funds in Franklin County. “People working two or three jobs, making minimum wage, and just can’t afford the cost of heat.”

Snowe held a handful of meetings with constituents and community advocates across Maine last week and this week. She vowed to take their stories, and the demand for more LIHEAP money, back to Washington, D.C.

“This (heat) isn’t a luxury. This is a vital necessity that makes the difference in many cases between life and death,” Snowe said.

About a dozen people showed up for the meeting in Lewiston on Wednesday.

Among those who spoke: a single mother from Norway whose 11-year-old son offered to forgo Christmas so they could heat the house and catch up on bills; a Lisbon Falls widower who struggles to heat his 220-year-old home; and a retired Wilton woman who sets her thermostat to 60 degrees and called LIHEAP “a blessing.”

John Messinese, a disabled Marine veteran, and his wife, Charlene, a cancer survivor with other medical problems, told Snowe how they weatherized their Rumford home, closed off rooms, set their thermostat low and filled their heating oil tank in the summer when prices were lower. But the couple still struggled to pay medical bills and heat their house.

“We never get more than we can handle, that’s always been my philosophy. But, you know, this is a real tough one,” Charlene Messinese said.

They’ve gotten LIHEAP money for the past four years.

“Other than burning our furniture, I don’t know what we would have done without it,” John Messinese said.

Sasseville also received LIHEAP money in the past. While he ran out of heating fuel before winter ended last year – leading to the portable heater and middle-of-the-night showers – he said the federal funding got him through most of the cold months.

“They have saved my life for several winters now,” he said.

This year, after being denied and having to reapply, Sasseville got $500 for kerosene. He keeps his thermostat down to 58 or 60 degrees to make the fuel last as long as possible, uncertain if he’ll get any more help.

“I hear the first click on and I say ‘thank you,'” he said. “I hear the heater go on and I can sleep soundly.”

Need heating assistance?

Call your local community action organization:

Community Concepts, Auburn: 795-4065

Community Concepts, Paris: 743-7716

Community Concepts, Rumford: 364-3721

Western Maine Community Action, East Wilton: 1-800-645-9636

People’s Regional Opportunity Program, Portland: 553-5848

Other sources of heating help

LIHEAP isn’t the only heating assistance available. Others include:

• Citizens Energy Oil Heat Program, provides 100 gallons of heating oil to low-income Mainers. Visit www.citizensenergy.com or call 1-877-563-4645.

• Franklin County Ecumenical Heating Fund, provides 50 gallons of fuel. Call Western Maine Community Action at 1-800-645-9636.

• Keep ME Warm, provides heating assistance to people who make less than the area’s annual median income. Visit www.mainecommunityaction.org or call your local community action organization for information.

• Energy conservation kit, provides tips and materials for conserving heat and energy in a home. Call your local community action organization for information.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.