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It's like magic: By careful leveraging, the Office of Family Support has nearly tripled a $200,000 emergency assistance fund provided by the Legislature.

The money is used to provide crisis assistance to families so that they don't lose their homes or have their utilities shut off. The increased funds include donations from local businesses and nonprofit organizations, as well as federal matching funds.The Emergency Assistance Homelessness Prevention Program is designed to help a family keep a crisis from turning into a catastrophe, according to Jan Hansen, OFS director.

The one-time assistance must be enough to prevent the family from losing either housing or utilities and the payment is made directly to the company that is owed. Besides tight income eligibility requirements (185 percent of the standard monthly needs budget or $1,021 for a family of three), the family must also be able to show that once the crisis is resolved it will be able to keep up payments on rent, mortgage and utilities.

It is also a program of last resort. People who are eligible for any other type of assistance cannot get emergency funds.

Hansen said the money is also not available to families that don't have a child living at home or to people who are not either U.S. citizens or legal aliens, she said. The exception is pregnant women in their third trimester who can qualify.

Payments are limited to $300 per family for one month's rent, up to $500 for one month's mortgage or $200 a family for utility payments. No family can receive emergency assistance more than once in a year.

Besides providing money to help a family over a crisis, the emergency-assistance program includes counseling in planning and family budgeting and advocacy to resolve disputes with a landlord or mortgage company.