Amanda Jackson recently became a single mother of three, and she's already worried about paying her winter power bill.
"I get paid monthly and my income is not that much," said Mrs. Jackson, a school bus driver for Whitfield County Schools. "It's just really hard right now, and Christmas is around the corner."
Her power bill in the winter is $300 to $400, she said, compared with $150 right now. To ask for help paying it, she went to the Dalton Organization of Churches United for People, a nonprofit organization that provides utility and rent aid.
At a time when local agencies are struggling the most, requests for help with heating bills are expected to rise as temperatures fall.
"We've had about a 20 percent increase in requests because of the lay-off situation in the county -- and a 15 percent decrease in the DOC-UP budget-- said Betty Brant, director of the Dalton Organization of Churches United for People, or DOC-UP.
The unemployment rate for the Dalton area, which includes Whitfield and Murray counties, was 12.4 percent in September, the highest in the state, according to the latest data released by Georgia Department of Labor.
On Nov. 2, the first day applications were accepted for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, some counties in Northwest Georgia had close to 200 people applying, said Deana Collins, community services program director with the Northwest Community Action Agency.
The federal program helps pay a winter heating or summer cooling bill for low-income and elderly people. It is given to the elderly, the homebound and those with life-threatening circumstances before being offered to the general public.
"I don't think there's an increase in the elderly applying, but we do expect a lot more people to apply this year," Ms. Collins said.
The agency is hoping to help about 10,500 families in the 10 counties it serves, including Murray and Whitfield, she said.
Ruth Crosswhite, one of those beneficiaries, said the winter heating aid is a godsend.
"I'm on Social Security, on a fixed income," said the 79-year-old LaFayette, Ga. resident, "but rent, food, taxes, utility bills (are) as high for me as for someone who works."
She applied for the program the first day it was available because "sometimes they run out of money, so if you don't get your name you are out."
Statewide $87 million is available, compared with $24 million just two years ago, according to Georgia Department of Human Services officials.
Last year, the Dalton Salvation Army helped 95 families with a total of $13,837, according to Patricia Thompson, office manager for the Salvation Army there.
So far this year, the organization has helped 270 families with $60,122 and turned away 908 others who would have required an additional $154,062, she said.
"It's been a steady increase every month since the economy got really bad," Ms. Thompson said. "A lot of these people are in unemployment, and their unemployment benefits are running out and they've already gotten all of their extensions."
Mrs. Jackson said she's been looking for a second job to supplement her bus-driving income, but so far she hasn't had any luck.
"I think (the help these agencies offer) is great, because if it wasn't for them tomorrow me and my kids would be sitting in the dark and cold," she said.
Some of the local agencies that offer help with utility bills:
* Dalton Salvation Army, 1101 N. Thornton Ave., Dalton, GA 706-278-3966
* North Georgia Community Action Agency, 1407 Burleyson Drive, Dalton, GA 706-226-7241 or 1-800-869-1150.
* Dalton Organization of Churches United for People, 511 Valley Drive, Dalton, GA 706-278-7883
WINTER HEATING PROGRAM
* The Community Action Agency is taking applications only for the elderly -- age 65 and over -- the homebound and those with life-threatening circumstances.
* The program opens Dec. 1 for the general public with different income-eligibility criteria.
* Applicants are processed on a first-come, first-served basis by each agency.
* The grants to help with home heating costs for the winter are for $350 or $310, depending on the person's income, and are paid directly to energy providers by local agencies.