For those struggling to pay heating costs, last winter's weather was a gift.

"What saved us last years was a fairly mild winter," said John Keeney, project coordinator for the New England Farm Workers Council in Fitchburg.

This winter is forecast to be colder, the administrator of the local fuel assistance program said at a Nov. 1 heating assistance forum held in Leominster.

Harsh weather, paired with the economic downturn, means more expenses, more people in need and fewer dollars, he said.

A new clientele, very much unused to and uncomfortable with asking for assistance will need help this year, he said. In many cases they used to donate to charitable organizations.

A number of programs to help with heating bills and energy efficiency are available for those who apply.

"Fuel assistance is just the gateway to a lot of other programs," Keeney said.

"It's a one-stop shop," he said.

Eligibility for the programs is based on family income. Individuals and families with a combined household income of 60 percent or less of the median income can qualify for aid; $31,271 for a one-person household, $60,137 for a four-person household.

The fuel assistance program relies on federal grants and pays heating vendors directly, for either delivered fuel or utility bills. The assistance is capped based on income levels, family size and available funds.

If heat is included with the rent, the assistance program will cover part of the rent as long as there is a heating burden, Keeney said. Some residents of subsidized housing that include heat are not eligible.

Residential utility rates for income-eligible clients are reduced automatically for fuel assistance recipients, said Sue Corson, customer assistance program coordinator for Unitil.

Recipients of other forms of aid who are not on fuel assistance may be eligible for the state-mandated rate reduction funded by the utility's rate-payers.

The more efficient homes are, the less energy they will require.

The Montachusett Opportunity Council coordinates income-eligible programs for weatherization, heating system assistance and appliance management.

Other programs exist to help people who are not on fuel assistance or need further assistance.

The Massachusetts Good Neighbors Energy Fund can assist people making less than 60 percent of the state median income, the level set for the fuel assistance program, Corson said.

The program is funded through donations to the Salvation Army.

The Emergency Shelter Fund offers shelter to individuals and families in the member towns of the United Way of North Central Mass. in imminent danger of loss of life due to extreme weather.

Townsend offers limited help through the Townsend Ecumenical Organization. The town administers trust funds to offer a small amount of one time help for people who cannot meet their bills. Referrals for these funds usually go through the TEO or from Town Hall.

How to contact:

Fuel Assistance -- NEFW 978-342-4520. Appointments will be made at the senior center for intake interviews.

Weatherization Fund - MOC 978-342-7025 ext. 306

Utility discount -- Unitil Customer Service: 888-301-7700

Good Neighbor Energy Fund -- Salvation Army 978-342-3300

Emergency Shelter Fund -- Requests must go through an agency. Contact NEFW; MOC; the Salvation Army; Our Father's House, 978-855-5184; Ginny's Helping Hand, 978-537-1387; the Spanish American Center, 978-534-3145 or the Gardner Community Action Committee 978-632-8700.