Last year, the Good Neighbour Energy Fund helped 1,600 households stay warm. (CBC)

The executive director of a Halifax food bank says a program designed to help low income people with emergency fuel purchases is "cruel" because it's too restrictive.

The Good Neighbour Energy Fund provides assistance for Nova Scotian families in "emergency heating crisis situations" if the household meets the eligibility guidelines.

Approved applicants are eligible for a maximum of $400, but can only apply every three years.

Last year, the program helped 1,600 households stay warm. The program ended the year with a surplus of $351,000 after rejecting 873 applicants.

The Salvation Army said 60 per cent of those 873 applications were rejected because they had applied within the three-year window.

"I would have to say that I believe that is cruel," said Mel Boutilier, the executive director of the Parker Street Food and Furniture Bank in Halifax.

Good Neighbour Energy Fund criteria:

  • Household is low income and located in Nova Scotia.
  • Household is in an emergency heating situation.
  • Household members have not received money from the fund for 36 months.
  • Head of household completes, submits an application providing all requested information and supporting documents.

"They would have turned away lots of people during the past winter and I know we sent many people to them and they were turned away and why they would have that amount of money left over when people are actually suffering is beyond me to understand."

Even if all 873 applicants had been granted the maximum amount of aid — $400 — there would have been enough money in the fund to help them, with a little money left over.

Maj. Alison Cowling, the Maritime Divisional Commander for the Salvation Army, said unfortunately there are limits to the number of people the fund can provide for.

"We can't help everyone that applies and that's why we stress to people it's an emergency situation," she said.

"It's not something that you budget in from year to year but it's when the need comes."

Mark Furey, the Minister of Service Nova Scotia and Municipal Relations — the department that oversees the fund — said he is open to change.

"We'll do that analysis once the application period is over [in the spring]," he said.

The Salvation Army began accepting applications for the fund last week. It is expecting a high volume of applicants for this year's $900,000 fund — not only because of the colder weather, but from those who are once again eligible after a three-year wait.

The Good Neighbour Energy Fund is funding collaboratively by the Nova Scotia government, Nova Scotia Power and Nova Scotia Power's employees and customers.