While Congress bickers about who should get what out of the $3.4 billion Home Energy Assistance Program known as both HEAP and LIHEAP, the leaves are turning color in upstate New York.
And the inevitable, long, freezing winter is on its way.
In Richfield Springs, Rachel Boer, an unemployed single mother with three teenage children, dreads a daunting choice.
"I'm going to have to decide whether to feed the kids or heat the house," said Boer, noting one of her two daughters has asthma while her son has chronic bronchitis. "When it gets cold, it really affects them."
HEAP is designed to assist low-income households and needy senior citizens with heating their homes. Last year, it was a $4 billion program. Combine cuts in the funding with a 31 percent hike in Central New York energy costs, and it's not hard to see that some local people will be in a HEAP of trouble.
Last year, 4,848 households in Otsego County received fuel assistance grants through HEAP, county Social Services Commissioner Joyce Boyd said.
"There is no way that many families can be helped this year," she said.
There are two bills being discussed in Congress, both with about the same amount of funding, but the version in the House of Representatives will shortchange our area, according to New York Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer.
The Senate bill would give New York state about 12 percent of the $3.4 billion, around $428,328,000, Schumer said. The House version would cut New York's share to about 10 percent _ $343,482,000.
"LIHEAP helps keep seniors and thousands of families from having to make the terrible choice between heating their home and buying prescription drugs, between heat or food, between heat and paying the mortgage," Schumer said. "Families are reeling from tough economic times and terrible flooding _ we need to protect New York's fair share of the LIHEAP pie."
The cruel truth is that even if the Senate bill prevails, there isn't going to be enough money to provide enough heat for enough people, even with some limited county aid.
The answer has to be found locally. In every town, village and city, plans must be made now to provide safe, welcoming places where folks can bring blankets, sleeping bags and the like on the coldest nights.
Maybe school gyms are a possibility, or meeting halls or churches and synagogues, any place that has bathroom facilities and room for families to stretch out and get some sleep where it's warm.
Sure, there will be problems with insurance and other concerns, but they can be overcome.
Those difficulties pale in comparison with having to choose whether to feed your kids or watch them shiver.