Rising temperatures are a tell-tale sign of spring! And while most are looking forward to the warmth of the sun following a long winter, the transition of seasons may have a cooling effect for those with an overdue balance on their gas or electricity bill. The Winter Moratorium, which prevents electricity and natural gas services from being disconnected during winter months, will be lifted April 15. This means that if you’re behind in your utility payments, time is running out to make payment or discuss payment arrangements. Once a pending disconnection notice arrives, options disappear.

Helping families in crisis avoid disconnection

Disconnections are always a last resort. This is why Direct Energy, in partnership with United Way, helps families in financial crisis who are unable to pay their utility bill. Since launching the Direct Energy Emergency Fund in 2017, 419 Alberta families have been helped. This year, $175,000 is available to support families dealing with a short-term emergency that may become a long-term problem.

“Debt collects interest,” says Susan Brooke, vice president, community impact and partnerships with United Way of Calgary and Area. “When accumulated over time, it can become a tipping point into poverty, which represents lost potential and opportunity for our entire community. Direct Energy’s commitment to fund this initiative helps people stabilize their finances and build towards a brighter future.”

Short-term crisis can happen to anyone. Financial instability can result from job loss, health setbacks, or a change in household income. And for the 47 per cent of Canadians working and struggling to live paycheque to paycheque, one simple additional expense such as eyeglasses or car repairs can force them to make impossible choices like putting food on the table, paying rent, or paying utilities.

“Disconnections are the absolute option of last resort,” says Wendy Tynan, senior manager of Corporate Affairs, Canada, Direct Energy. “We’re here to help, so please don’t wait until a disconnection notice arrives. Call as soon as you think you may be falling behind so we can discuss the options available to ensure your service continues while you get back on your feet. It’s an essential service needed in this province.”

The need is real

Alberta’s cold winters mean that winter bills are significantly higher than summer bills. And this year’s record-setting cold spell (which saw February going down as the fourth-coldest February in Calgary’s history), saw average utility usage increase by 14 per cent.

“With higher winter bills, we anticipate there will be a real need this year following the winter reprieve,” says Tynan. “The stories we hear of how families are helped through this Fund really highlight just how easily others could be in a similar situation.”

A situation like Nancy’s.* Following unexpected complications after surgery for which she was hospitalized many times over several months, Nancy was surprised to learn of her outstanding utility bill as she thought she had set up automatic payments. The accumulation had totaled an unmanageable amount which she was unable to pay back living on an Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped (AISH). With the help of the Fund, Nancy cleared her utility balance, started a fixed monthly bill within her means, and now focuses on her recovery and illness management.

There are a number of energy providers consumers can choose from. But for Calgarians not on a contract, their natural gas service is provided by Direct Energy Regulated Services and Enmax provides their power. As the regulated provider, meaning their rates are approved by the Government each month, they serve as the safety net during the winter for Albertans who have been dropped by their provider to ensure the heat and lights stays on when it’s cold and dark outside.

While utility companies aren’t generally recognized as being the ‘good guys,’ Direct Energy’s creation of the Basic Needs Emergency Fund is just one example of how they are doing local good as part of their corporate commitment to giving back to the community. And how they are helping to prevent people from spiraling into poverty during a time of crisis.

Who is eligible to receive funding?

Any Albertan experiencing a utility related financial crisis and living within the service areas of United Way of Calgary and Area and United Way of the Alberta Capital Region may contact 211 to be referred to a partner agency for assessment.

What is 211?

211 is a free, confidential, multilingual, 24 hour information and referral system that provides information on government and community based health and social services. 211 is available in certain regions across the province, including Calgary and Edmonton.

For more information, visit www.directenergy.ca/alberta/emergencyfund or dial 211.

*Nancy is a real-life recipient of the Direct Energy Emergency Fund whose name has been changed to protect her privacy.