Emergency fund for utility bills running low as Calgary families in crisis drive spike in calls

Wednesday Lupypciw is doing everything she can to get her electricity bill down, including turning off all the lights in her home after 8:30 p.m. and charging her electric vehicle at free charging stations around the city.  (Ose Irete/CBC - image credit)
Wednesday Lupypciw is doing everything she can to get her electricity bill down, including turning off all the lights in her home after 8:30 p.m. and charging her electric vehicle at free charging stations around the city. (Ose Irete/CBC - image credit)

A new emergency fund for Calgary families struggling with utility bills is already running low.

In December, Enmax gave family assistance program Trellis $150,000 to provide one-time relief for families in crisis. But managers with the non-profit say it's already two-thirds gone and the need for help has soared.

"It's not meeting the need, there just isn't enough help and we're seeing just really, really high bills," said Angela Clark, chief strategy officer at Trellis and a member of Alberta's Energy Poverty Taskforce.

Natural gas rates increased and the floating (regulated) rate for electricity in Calgary and Edmonton nearly doubled in the last year, reaching roughly 16 cents a kilowatt hour this year in February from 8¢/kWh a year before.

In the fall experts were forecasting increased rates and warned Albertans to get on a fixed-price plan, but not everyone did or could.

Trellis, 211-Distress Centre Calgary, and the Alberta Utilities Advocate are all seeing a spike in calls for assistance, including from residents struggling for the first time.

Three times the number of calls

"Our triage and assessment person is getting three times the number of calls that she's used to getting ... often it's just walking families through what's available out there because for the first time in their lives, they're having to access these services," said Jocelyn Adamo, director of programs for Trellis.

The emergency funding is provided by Enmax for the Trellis Society to allocate, an increase from the previous $50,000 annual grant, and part of an effort to prevent families from becoming homeless due to rental and utility arrears.

Electricity vs. gas regulated rates rates in Alberta

Trellis began dispersing funds to families in December, providing between $200 and $6,000 per case. The increase lets Trellis help families at immediate risk of homelessness, and also those who simply can't pay a bill for the first time.

"Before we were triaging for risk of homelessness first," said Adamo. "We would pour our resources first into people who are at imminent risk of homelessness, and that left a lot of people with debts, growing utility bills that we weren't able to support them."

The Distress Centre and United Way also got increased Enmax funding this year; it's not clear how much of their funding is left.

This month, CBC News in Calgary is launching a new effort to understand the utility situation. We've been using a text-messaging app to ask people about the information they're seeking and how the increase in rates and fees affects them.

So far, many have said they're struggling to find clear information comparing companies and plans. They say they're shopping around for a new provider, making tough choices about what else to cut from their budgets, and setting the thermostat down near 17 C.

'I wear wool socks everywhere'

Wednesday Lupypciw is among those who texted. She and her partner bought their first home in Forest Lawn last year and said at first utility bills were manageable; electricity was roughly $200 in the spring.

But they stayed on the floating rate. By November they paid $379 and in December, the electricity bill alone was more than $500.

Oseremen Irete/CBC
Oseremen Irete/CBC

"I never thought about my utilities bill before this. It was just part of rent, it wasn't the separate thing that's like a little kind of flashing alarm," she said. "We were just kind of reeling."

Now, she says, "I wear wool socks everywhere. I hated sleeping with socks on, but I found that now that I sleep in wool socks, it's very tolerable. We will only dry one load in the dryer per week and anything else above that,hang it dry. I researched the coldest possible temperature I could keep my house at. After 8:30, we have to have all of the lights turned off."

And when it comes to her electric vehicle, Lupypciw mapped out all the free charging stations in the city.

"The IKEA parking lot has a couple of free electric chargers. Sometimes I'll just go and juice up my vehicle for a bit."

But if their bills continue to rise, Lupypciw — who is currently on Employment Insurance after leaving her job because of long-COVID — said they might have to consider seeking one-time financial aid.

Facing disconnection

At the Distress Centre, 211 program manager Sangeeta Sharma says many of the calls they get are from people who are getting desperate.

"Specifically about utility disconnection, what we hear most of the times from our callers is that they have received a disconnection notice and now they need some financial assistance to pay and not get it disconnected entirely," she said.

"Financial assistance has always remained on top of our list for service users to connect with us, whether it's utility disconnection or of anything related to their housing situation."

At the office of the Alberta Utilities Consumer Advocate, director Chris Hunt says his team tries to help callers look at options.

"Seeing if they can negotiate a payment plan with their retailer for charges already incurred and then also talking with people about what they can do going forward for options to reduce their costs," he said.

Call volumes have increased exponentially.

"At the start of January we were getting about 400 calls a week. In the second week of February we fielded about 3,000 calls in a week," he said. "We definitely understand that the impact of these prices on consumers has been a real shock."

Tips for cutting back consumption

The nonprofit All One Sky developed these practical tips for cutting energy consumption several years ago. Director Helen Corbett says the estimated savings are likely higher now. Clicking the links will download a pdf.