December 8, 2016 6:11 pm
Updated: December 8, 2016 7:45 pm

Ontario electricity support fails to reach most vulnerable customers

WATCH ABOVE: Hydro One in Ontario is turning the lights on for Christmas. 14,000 families who have been disconnected are now being contacted by the utility so they can arrange late payments and get them out of the dark. Mike Drolet reports.

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After more than a year, less than one-third of eligible customers have successfully enrolled in the Ontario Electricity Support Program, according to data obtained from the Ontario Energy Board.

An estimated 570,000 low-income customers are eligible for the province’s flagship energy assistance fund – a program the government has spent $11.7 million to build, implement and advertise  – but only 163,000 of these customers were registered as of Nov. 30.

“We continue to receive approximately 3,000 applications per week,” said Karen Evans, a spokesperson for the OEB. “Once the completed application and signed consent form has been received from the applicant, it typically takes less than four weeks to confirm eligibility.”

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But with only 258,000 total applications processed, it could take as long as two years before all eligible customers are registered – and that’s assuming everyone who applies is accepted.

READ MORE: Hydro One to reconnect more than 1,400 customers currently without power

“If everyone truly had the best interest of low-income customers at heart, they’d be working with community agencies to find a way to get the resource – the OESP grant – to the people who need it most,” said Francesca Dobbyn, executive director of the United Way of Bruce-Grey County.

“With no computer, Internet or printer, applicants rely on social agencies to assist them in applying, which can be difficult in rural communities with no transportation systems.”

Dobbyn says the application process itself can also be a barrier. For example, the Canada Revenue Agency, which assists the OEB in verifying an applicant’s income, requires all consent forms be completed by hand – meaning nothing can be faxed or emailed.

WATCH: As many as 1400 Hydro One customers can look forward to a warmer holiday this year. The largest utility in the province has agreed to restore hydro to disconnected customers after months of Global News reporting on the issue. Sean O’Shea has more. 

“The CRA requires a ‘wet’ signature,” said Dobbyn. “They [the OEB] tried to get around it, but the CRA insisted.”

Assistance hard to come by

Mel Kemp and Peter Burnette lived without electricity for more than three months after Hydro One cut off their power in August.

Following heavy rains near the end of summer, the couple’s Kingston, Ont. home was flooded and their basement overrun with black mold – thanks to having no electricity.

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“With no working sump pump, the insurance won’t cover any of the water damage,” said Kemp, a 57-year-old school bus driver. “There are some agencies out there that are willing to help a bit, but you have to keep phoning around and finding other agencies because none of them will help totally.”

READ MORE: After 6 months without power, Ontario family reconnected by Hydro One

Despite having only one part-time job between the two of them, Kemp and Burnette are not currently registered with the OESP.

“Finding out about [assistance programs] was a challenge to begin with,” said Kemp. “It’s almost like too little too late. You know, like, with your bills they’ll give you $20 or $30 off.”

Less than 5% of disconnected customers registered

Nancy Taylor, vice president of Kingston Hydro, says less than five per cent of all customers disconnected by the utility provider last year are currently registered with the OESP.

“Of the about 600 disconnects that have taken place in 2015, only 31 accounts are on the Ontario Electricity Support Program,” said Taylor. “So it’s quite likely there are customers that could be eligible for that plan that haven’t signed up for it yet.”

For a municipally-owned and operated utility provider, disconnecting customers is an absolute last resort, said Taylor. That’s why programs like the OESP are so important.

“They’re our friends, neighbours and families, so we’re very conscious of the impact high electricity prices are having and we’re very empathetic.”

Unfortunately, Taylor, like Dobbyn, is not entirely confident in the OESP’s capacity to help those who require it most.

“The current process may not be getting the assistance to the people who really need it,” said Taylor, adding that of the utility’s roughly 24,000 residential customers, only one thousand are currently registered with the OESP.

Still, Taylor says her company is working hard to keep customers connected and address the broader needs of the community as a whole.

“When you’re in a situation where you have low income, often it’s associated with other things as well,” said Taylor. “Mental illness, learning disabilities, addictions – and so it’s a much more complicated problem than we understand.”

Low registration a “travesty”

Theresa McClenaghan, executive director of the Canadian Environmental Law Association and co-founder of the Low-income Energy Network, says there are a number of concerns surrounding the OESP application process making it more difficult for vulnerable customers to receive support.

“There are lots and lots of reasons why people might not apply,” McClenaghan said. Even if there’s lots of outreach people may still not know about it… With seniors there’s a sort of ‘we don’t trust anything to do with electricity’ that has to do sign up programs.”

McClenaghan agrees that issues with the CRA verification process have hindered the program. She says a lack of service agencies capable of helping customers enroll has also added to the problem.

READ MORE: Thousands of Ontarians are spending 30% of their household income on electricity

“Those factors are making things slow and it means that all of those people are not obtaining the benefit,” McClenaghan said. “If it’s applied to everyone who’s eligible and if it’s applied routinely every month, it helps a lot with keeping the bills manageable.”

With respect to the low number of Kingston Hydro customers that were disconnected last year and are now enrolled in the program, McClenaghan says it’s a clear example of why more needs to be done to get people signed up.

“That’s just a travesty for the program,” McClenaghan said. “If it’s not reaching the people in the very most need and the people who are really suffering as a result of those disconnections.”

-with files from Leslie Young

© 2016 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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