Energy poverty on the rise in Haliburton County

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Nick & Benton performed at the 2021 Fuel for Warmth fundraiser.

Fuel for Warmth executive director Jennifer Hughey said they recently had an association reach out to them on behalf of a client family, “in a very emergency situation.” The family is living in a trailer and heating with the use of a gas generator. Hughey said $60 worth of gas got the family only eight hours of heat. 

At that rate, it would cost $180 per day to warm the trailer for 24 hours. “That situation is becoming way more prevalent than it has. It’s really disheartening,” Hughey said. Meanwhile, Tina Jackson, of Heat Bank Haliburton County, provided an example of increases in the cost of heating oil. 

She said it was estimated that a two-person household spent just over $2,500 last winter but this year they are looking at just under $6,000. “I am very concerned with how people are going to manage with the increased cost of fuel,” she said. Heat Bank Haliburton County has launched an online auction and is holding its major fundraiser for the year at Rhubarb Nov. 27. Meanwhile, Fuel for Warmth is preparing for its biggest money-maker of the year, the Christmas Shindig, Dec. 3 at the Northern Lights Performing Arts Pavilion. 

According to the Heat Bank website, almost half of County households spend 10 per cent or more of their income on home energy, which equates to 47 per cent living in energy poverty. The median energy cost for households is $3,895 a year. 

Both Hughey and Jackson said their nonprofits – which provide wood and grants for oil, propane and electricity – started getting calls in mid-September about this year’s heating season. Hughey said those calls traditionally don’t come until late October, or early November. 

“We’re predicting that the increase this year is going to be at least 30 per cent higher year over year,” she said. She attributed that to the lasting effects of pandemic, and people losing jobs. For example, she said the hospitality industry took a hit during COVID, forcing layoffs. 

She said some of the calls have been proactive, people wanting to make sure they were prepared for winter. 

Jackson echoed that. She said when people got their letters from propane companies, offering a fixed rate, many reached out to the Heat Bank, worried they could not manage costs and to find out what assistance was available. 

Hughey said in October, she was sometimes getting calls from two families a day. “With persistent inflation, it’s really not just the cost of oil, or propane, or firewood. We’re seeing higher food costs, higher gas costs. Generally, every single thing has gone up in price,” Hughey said. Jackson noted incomes are not keeping pace, whether it’s wages, Ontario Works, or the Ontario Disability Support Program. “I’m very concerned with how people are going to manage with the increased cost of fuel.” 

Since companies can no longer cut electricity for payments in arrears, she is fearful of people doing things such as leaving the oven on as a heating source. “People will be forced into making those decisions,” she said. 

Both non-profits are doing what they can. They are working with fuel companies, on things such as standard rates for the charity donating funds, and getting clients to enrol in budget billing amounts to spread costs over the year. Last year, the Heat Bank increased its grants to $500, from $400, but Jackson acknowledges that doesn’t go as far as it used to, especially with heating oil. She said companies are waiving interest charges. 

She said Budget Propane just donated $6,000. But the same cost of living challenges affecting clients are impacting donors, both noted. Hughey said, “fundraising has been extremely difficult this year. These increases in costs don’t just affect individuals who are experiencing financial hardship. They affect everyone, including small businesses that are approached on a regular basis for donations of any kind.” Jackson said it’s early days, but she doesn’t think they’ve raised as much this year compared to last. “I’m getting a little bit worried. I think we are probably seeing the beginning of people already struggling to cover their own essential needs,” she said. Jackson is urging people to check out their online auction at app.galabid.com/ heatbank22. The Rhubarb event is sold out.

However, both said it is getting to the point where it may be too much to do it on the back of sponsors and fundraisers. “The money through donations can only go so far,” Hughey said. She noted there are provincial funds and grants but they tend to be one off, not something they can bank on year-to-year. “It’s really a community initiative.” Jackson said people should educate themselves about energy poverty, at energypoverty.ca. “And I think we need to turn to our provincial leaders. 

We need a plan. This shouldn’t be falling to community agencies, community non-profits, to try to fill in the safety net for people who are going to otherwise go without fuel.” Hughey is encouraging people to get their tickets for the Shindig, Dec. 3 at 7:30 p.m. at the Northern Lights Performing Arts Pavilion. Tickets ($30) can be purchased in both Minden and Haliburton at UpRiver Trading, or by calling 705-457-1354.