May 11, 2019 4:26 pm
Updated: May 12, 2019 2:02 pm

‘The need is great’: Calgary’s demand for assistance to pay utility bills grows

WATCH: A growing number of Albertans need help to pay their utility bills. Now that a provincial winter moratorium has been lifted, customers are starting to get disconnection notices. Carolyn Kury de Castillo has more on the pressure it is putting on an emergency fund designed to help people get by.

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Laurie Schlamp has been looking for work for two years after losing her social work job in Calgary.

She’s used up her Employment Insurance and much of her savings this winter.

The 59-year-old part-time student fell behind on her rent this year and wasn’t able to pay her utility bills.

“It’s everywhere. It’s every sector of the city. It’s every career,” said Schlamp, describing Calgary’s job market.

“Just having absolutely no income and nothing to fall back on is absolutely terrifying,” she said. “It’s very scary. I keep looking around my house thinking: what can I sell? I spend a lot of time just wondering how I am going to get by and what can I sell to stay afloat.”

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Schlamp called 211, which lined her up with a province-wide program that helps people pay their utility bills. Energy companies donate to the United Way in Calgary and Edmonton to help support families with emergency funding.

“With the coldest winter in a number of years, we know that bills went up about 14 per cent in February alone. So we know that Albertans are still struggling,” said Wendy Tynan, senior manager of corporate affairs with Direct Energy.

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Tynan said there is $175,000 available this year in the Direct Energy Emergency Fund, which is part of the company’s $500,000 commitment over three years.

“It’s oversubscribed. The need is great,” Tynan said.

Since launching the fund in 2017, more than 400 Alberta families have received emergency grants and access to critical resources. In 2018, the fund helped 279 Alberta families.

Eligibility for the Direct Energy Emergency Fund is determined by 211 and partner agencies. Funds are available to Albertans served by the United Way of Calgary and Area, and the Alberta Capital Region, regardless of energy provider.

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Calgary’s Distress Centre said most of their calls are from people who are in some sort of financial need. From 2017 to 2018, the centre saw a 36 per cent increase in the number of people it found bill payment help for.

“The demand has definitely increased where we receive hundreds of calls each month and the main concern being financial need of some sort,” said Mike Kwok, basic needs fund administrator with the Distress Centre.

That is the pressure and the worry that builds up about what is going to happen at the end of the month. Having heat for the kids, having enough food for the kids or having enough power to keep the lights on for school or for cooking meals,” Kwok said.

The Alberta government has a winter moratorium that runs from October to April 15 where people cannot have their utilities cut off for non-payment. Now that’s it’s lifted, some people are starting to get disconnection notices. Energy companies are encouraging customers who are in arrears to call as soon as possible to explore payment options.

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