Fund expands to help more with rising energy costs

By Lina Prochilo

One hundred and fifty low-income households are set to get a break on their heating and hydro bills this winter thanks to the efforts behind the Winter Warmth Fund.

This year, Hydro Ottawa, Enbridge Gas Distribution and the United Way/Centraide Ottawa hope to help 150 low-income families and individuals beat spiralling energy costs and the winter cold.

“We joined the fund because we are committed to supporting the community we serve,” says Susan Barrett, a spokesperson for Hydro Ottawa.

The Winter Warmth Fund was established in 2004 in Toronto and expanded to include Ottawa last year.

Manny Sousa, manager of community relations at Enbridge, says the aim of the fund is to help pay the bills of people who are at or below the poverty line.

“We wanted to come up with a program to help our customers,” he says.

“We initiated the program with the United Way because they had the infrastructure in place to run it.”

Last year, 63 households received funding. Sousa says the addition of Hydro Ottawa to the fund this year will increase that number.

“The first family we helped was a mom and dad who lost their jobs,” says Eileen Dooley, vice-president of community services for United Way/Centraide Ottawa.

“They had exhausted all their resources, even their RRSPs. Their heat was turned off and they had ice in their toilets. We were delighted to help them get back on their feet.”

According to the 2001 Statistics Canada census, 26 per cent of households in Centretown are low-income.

People who cannot pay their gas or hydro bills, or who have had their gas or electricity cut off, can apply to the fund through the Salvation Army.

Dooley says the amount each family or individual gets varies depending on their finances.

They must be below or near the poverty line and have no other resources. The money they get from the fund is put towards their gas or electricity bill. They can only receive funding once a year.

Barrett says the limit to what each home can get is $400.

“The fund is just intended to help them out. They still have to sustain themselves. They have to look at the bigger picture and ask, what if we can’t pay our bills next month.”

Cliff Gazee, a member of the city’s poverty issues advisory committee, says that cutbacks on social services coupled with rising prices for things like food pressure low-income individuals to cut back on heat.

“Heat is not a healthy thing to cut back on. The fund is a good investment to ensure people don’t freeze to the point that illness sets in.”

The program runs from December to April, or until funds run out.

“We don’t get a lot of applications until February, March, because that is when people realize they need help,” says Sousa. “Usually when Christmas bills come in they know they can’t pay.”

The cost of heat and electricity varies depending on the size of a home and on the weather. Bills will be more expensive in the winter. Sousa says on average, monthly gas bills can range from $200 to $400.

Barrett says Hydro Ottawa is also offering free electricity audits to households that receive money from the Winter Warmth Fund. This normally costs $50.

Sousa says Enbridge encourages their approximate 242,000 Ottawa-Carleton customers to conserve heat by using a programmable thermostat and by putting caulking around their doors and windows to keep out the cold.

Sousa says Enbridge is seeking donations to the fund and has reached out to its customers by putting inserts in their bills. He says if you live in Ottawa and want to donate, then your donation will be directed to helping Ottawa families and individuals.

“This is a feel-good fund,” says Sousa. “Everyone is concerned about those in need and the fund is a good way to help out.”