TOWANDA - The Grace Connection in Towanda says it is serving more clients than ever before, but is running out of money to help them.

In 2011, the Grace Connection, which is a non-profit agency that provides emergency assistance to help financially distressed residents pay their rent and utilities, served 325 households, said Judy Smith, the volunteer office manager for the Grace Connection.

By contrast, the Grace Connection has served 341 households so far this year, "and we basically have four more months to go," Smith said. A household could be an individual or a family.

While demand for its services is up, the Grace Connection's funds "are becoming depleted very quickly," said Jeanne Douglas, secretary of the Grace Connection's governing board.

The Grace Connection only has enough funds on hand to continue to provide assistance to the public for one more month, Smith said.

"We need help," Smith said, adding that the agency needs donations from individuals and businesses in the community to continue to provide assistance to the public.

Since it was founded in 2006, the Grace Connection has had to close its doors a few times when it ran out of funds to assist clients, Douglas said. But the agency was always reopened after a short period of time, when donations to the agency came in again, she said.

"I don't want to close it (the agency) down" in the coming weeks, when cold weather will have returned to the area. Smith said. Smith explained that a lot of people, many of them elderly, come to the Grace Connection for help paying their home heating bills.

While a government program, LIHEAP (Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program) also helps people pay their home heating bills, the public cannot tap LIHEAP funds until November, she said.

Furthermore, LIHEAP "does not pay very much (to clients). It won't get them through the winter," Douglas said.

The amount that LIHEAP pays out to each client is less than what it was in the past, Douglas said.

While the Grace Connection has been in existence for six years, many people don't know what the Grace Connection is, "or that the need is so great for our services," Douglas said.

The Grace Connection, which is located in the new addition to the Trinity Lutheran Church in Towanda, was founded by area churches, Smith said.

"We basically run on donations," Smith has said.

Most of the funds that the Grace Connection provides to clients are in the area of housing - for rent and utilities, Douglas said.

And that is an area where people with lower incomes have had a particularly difficult time in recent years, she said.

Smith explained that for many of the Grace Connection's clients, "their rents are now two times or three times what they were."

"A lot (of people) have been evicted because they can't pay the rent increase," she said.

The Grace Connection is also seeing more homeless clients than it did in the past, Smith said.

"We have had 25 homeless families or individuals since the beginning of the year," she said. "We had nine last month alone."

Besides provide providing help in paying rent and utility bills, the Grace Connection also provides emergency assistance in other areas, such as food vouchers, help in purchasing gasoline to drive to work or to doctor's appointments, good used furniture when moving into a new residence, and help paying for certain medical prescriptions, Smith said.

The agency also provides two nights' stay in the Towanda Motel for homeless people, although that is far from an ideal solution, Smith said.

Putting homeless people up in the Towanda Motel "is like a slap in the face. After two nights, all of sudden they are back out on the street. We would rather help them into a place (a permanent residence) if we could find one they could afford," Smith said.

"We really need low-income family housing" in Bradford County, Douglas said. "There is not very much in Bradford County. Most of the subsidized housing is for the elderly and disabled."

Some homeless people have declined the offer to stay in the Towanda Motel, preferring to receive assistance for gasoline so that they can continue to look for work while sleeping in their cars, Douglas said.

The Grace Connection serves people living in the Towanda, Northeast Bradford and Wyalusing school districts and the village of Ulster.

Among the reasons for the increased number of clients this year are the unusually high price of gasoline, layoffs related to the slowdown in gas drilling, and the recent elimination of the state's General Assistance cash grant program, which mostly served adults with disabilities, according to Smith and Douglas.

The Grace Connection never provides money directly to its clients, Douglas said. Instead, the Grace Connection's checks will always be written out to the landlord, utility company, oil company, or other vendor, she said.

If you care to donate to the Grace Connection, make out a check to "Grace Connection" and mail it to Grace Connection, P.O. Box 122, Towanda, PA 18848.