THE WARMTH of Christmas will last a while longer, but those of us lucky enough to feel it could also use a reminder of the thousands more who have a hard time finding warmth at any time of the year.

Those include -but aren't limited to - the worrisome number of homeless who are perishing on our streets. Over the last year, 85 homeless people have died, more that twice the number just five years ago. And as the merciless economy seeks out more victims, the city is going to be strained to make sure that number doesn't rise. With resources already tight, getting people into shelters is going to get challenging.

Those vulnerable to the cold also include thousands of low-income customers of Peco Energy and PGW whose precarious situation is made even more so when their heat source gets cut off.

And sadly, that number is higher this year than last. According to a survey released by the Public Utility Commission, the number of gas and electric customers around the state who have been disconnected rose by 20 percent in the first 11 months of the year, to a record 296,000. And at the start of December, more than 17,000 homes lacked a safe heat source, also up from last year.

Almost half of those were in Philadelphia and the immediate area.

These numbers are always worth paying attention to, but in the past four years, they've been subjected to even deeper scrutiny. That's when the PUC suspended the winter moratorium and began allowing shutoffs for nonpayment.

That change has been better for the bottom lines of utilities, especially that of PGW, but worse for those unable to pay.

And that typically draws fierce and familiar battle lines between public advocates and Philadelphia's municipally owned gas works. The conundrum: A big percentage of the customer base of PGW is poor. They get reduced gas rates and other help, but much of that help is paid for by the rest of its customers. The more help low-income customers get - whether from relaxed rules or discounted rates - the higher the burden on all customers.

That's always a dilemma, and research by PGW suggests that that burden is being shouldered

disproportionately by lower- to middle-income customers - those who are not poor enough to qualify for assistance but who still struggle to pay their bills.

It would be much easier to solve this - and many other of society 's problems - if we had just two classes, the rich and the poor. Reality is more complicated, especially in Philadelphia, where the very poor and the struggling are a much larger group than anyone else. And PGW itself has struggled mightily to close a $1 billion debt and to provide efficient services to the city without putting the city at graver financial risk.

Ironically, it was the change in the PUC shutoff rules, often referred to as Chapter 14, that helped PGW get on firmer financial footing. In fact, a separate PUC report sums up the irony: PGW has outperformed its peer companies in improving collections. It was cited for decreasing the number of terminations by 21.1 percent while improving collections performance since the passage of Chapter 14. However PGW was the only utility to show a decrease in reconnections since the passage of Chapter 14. Advocates say that's because PGW won't waive the $123 reconnection fee.

The PGW dilemma - that pits fiscally responsible actions against socially responsible behavior - is one that is likely to be writ larger in the coming year, not only in the city, but across the country, as society struggles to cope with larger numbers of the vulnerable with fewer and fewer resources. That cold reality hits us all. *