Kingston Hydro cuts off single mom who chose groceries over utility bill

Click to play video: 'Food or Hydro: The new normal for many in rural Ontario'
Food or Hydro: The new normal for many in rural Ontario
Hydro rates in Ontario have spiraled out of control. Leaving many Ontarians to choose between food and heat. Mike Drolet has the debate and what the government plans to do about it – Nov 22, 2016

Alone and in the dark.

That’s how 16-year-old Aaron was left when Kingston Hydro came to disconnect the power at his mother’s Kingston, Ont., home on November 3.

Aaron — a pseudonym as Global News has agreed to keep their family’s identity private — was home sick from school that day. He asked if he could call his mother before the power was disconnected. Though polite, the serviceman told Aaron it would not be necessary.

“A man came to the door and said he was disconnecting the services,” said Jane, Aaron’s mother. “My son asked if he could call me at work or anything and he [the serviceman] said no. He just needed access to disconnect and that was it.”
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READ MORE: Ontario electricity rates will remain unchanged, first time in nearly a decade

Click to play video: 'Kingston Hydro disconnects single mom'
Kingston Hydro disconnects single mom

In 2015, Kingston Hydro disconnected 639 residential customers. This figure represents roughly 2.5 per cent of the utility’s 27,000 customers.

Overall, Kingston Hydro ranked 13th out of 75 utility distributors in Ontario in 2015 for the total percentage of customers they disconnected.

Like many working parents in Ontario, Jane has struggled with rising electricity costs. She says the sharp increase in prices has forced her to make difficult choices when it comes to supporting her family.

WATCH: Kingston couple disconnected from hydro, struggling in the dark

Click to play video: 'Kingston couple disconnected from hydro, struggling in the dark'
Kingston couple disconnected from hydro, struggling in the dark

“I couldn’t keep up. The bills were just getting too high,” said Jane, fighting back tears. “I just had to decide, either groceries or hydro. Which one do you pay? And obviously groceries won.”

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Jane is a single mother. She works full time as a personal support worker and often picks up extra overtime shifts. She’s been living in the same home for six years but in that time her monthly electricity bills have gone from $140 to nearly $400. Her wages, meanwhile, have been frozen for 7 years.  She says the pain of letting down her son is terrible.

“Guilty. I felt like I couldn’t provide him the basics. Traumatized, really. I didn’t know what to say to him or how to explain it.”

Following the disconnection, Jane says she cried for days. Her daughter and son-in-law, who also live in Kingston, offered her a place to stay. Her son Aaron went to a friend’s home.

READ MORE: Tories say Liberals spent $11.7M on consultants, media for hydro rebate plan

“My son was understanding but embarrassed,” said Jane. “He said he would give me some of his paycheque to help pay it, and I explained that’s not necessary. That’s not his job. He asked where I was going to be because he didn’t want me staying there in the cold.”

Despite her best efforts, Jane wonders if there’s anything else she might have done to prevent the disconnection and spare her family the sense of humiliation they now feel.

“Could I tried to have avoid it and had him not experience it? Is there anything I could have done?” asked Jane. “I don’t know. I work full time. I’ve worked in the same place for 20 years. I work hard. I don’t know what else I can do. You can’t afford hydro nowadays. You have to choose whether you pay one or the other.”

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In the end, Jane says it was a $300 late payment that caused Kingston Hydro to disconnect her and her son from their electricity services.

READ MORE: Ontario energy minister refuses to release data on rural electricity rates

While her power has since been restored, thanks to assistance from the City of Kingston and her landlord, Jane says she still hasn’t figured out how she’ll pay the rest of her bills and keep the electricity on.

“I’m still going through it,” said Jane. “I still owe some on last month’s rent and now I’ve got to start this month. So I’m still not past it yet … I guess it’s one day at a time.”

Jane and Aaron currently live in a two-bedroom townhouse. She says they’ll likely have to move in order to make ends meet.

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Jane says she’d like the provincial government to think before making decisions that cause electricity rates to rise, adding there’s only so much she and other Ontarians can bear.

“They [the government] need to live in a house on the same income as a normal, average working-class parent,” said Jane. “Just see how it feels to have someone cut your hydro off with your kid there. You know, how does it feel when you have to choose between groceries and hydro? When you choose between hydro and rent?”

City of Kingston can’t provide enough help

Cities and counties across Ontario are trying to keep up with the rising tide of disconnects and customers falling behind on their electricity bills.

As Global News first reported, Ontario electricity providers disconnected more than 59,000 residential customers in 2015.

In total, Ontarian residential customers owed more than $172 million in back payments as of Dec. 31, 2015. This represented an increase of nearly 60 per cent over the amount owed at the end of 2013.

READ MORE: Most rural Ontario hydro customers to see new increases, despite rebate

“The current funding is certainly not meeting the need of the whole community,” said Sheldon Laidman, director of housing and social services at the City of Kingston.

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Laidman says cuts in provincial funding and freezes on social assistance funding make it nearly impossible for low-income families to keep up with rising energy costs.

“We are relying upon provincial funding for this,” said Laidman. “The amount of funding we receive dictates the thresholds and the income cut-offs and the other criteria we must impose on this to make sure our money gets spent most wisely.”

While Laidman says it’s not his responsibility to decide on social policy, he would certainly be open to the province committing more funding to prevent customers from being disconnected.

READ MORE: Ontario hydro costs: Timeline leading up to Wynne calling it an ’urgent issue’

“If the province wanted to provide additional funding we would expand our program to accommodate that because we certainly want to serve as many people as we can,” said Laidman.

Aid group calls for ban on disconnections

Still, there are those who believe disconnections should be prohibited altogether.

Francesca Dobbyn, executive director of the United Way of Bruce-Grey County and an outspoken critic of the province’s energy policy, believes there should be a halt on disconnections.

WATCH: More calls for moratorium on hydro disconnections

Click to play video: 'More calls For moratorium on hydro disconnections'
More calls For moratorium on hydro disconnections

She asked Ontario Energy Minister Glenn Thibeault for this in a meeting earlier this year.

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“We’re looking for a moratorium on disconnections,” said Dobbyn. “We need to look at the bigger picture. We need stronger supports. We’re not able to help people as much as we need to help.”

In fact, Dobbyn believes access to electricity is a basic, fundamental right. And that failing to provide such services puts the health of low-income families and people on social assistance at risk.

“You can’t live in Canada because of our climate without electricity,” said Dobbyn. “People are off on stress leave because of their utility bills. They’re getting sick because of their utility bills … Rising hydro rates are driving a lot more Ontarians into poverty. They’re driving them into our hospitals. They’re driving them into our mental health facilities.”

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