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As more seek help to pay utility bills, funding for assistance dwindles

Updated: 2014-01-14T04:48:07Z

By ERIC ADLER

The Kansas City Star

As it stands now, Natasha Smith is banking on her prayers.

“I’m going to pray that the funds come,” said Smith who, having lost her job four months ago, is a 36-year-old single mother whose unemployment benefits have run out.

She has six kids, the youngest age 3, the oldest 16.

She’s been broke for months. Her electric bill now sits at $475.09. Gas bill: $671.32.

The unpaid rent on her south Kansas City home is so past due, at $3,900, she has received notice that the Jackson County sheriff is set to evict her at 10 a.m. Wednesday, emptying her home of whatever goods remain and placing them on the curb.

The polar vortex that descended last week to bring the coldest temperatures in decades is gone. But for thousands of families in the Kansas City area, being put out into the cold or living in it remains a harsh reality even as temperatures return to normal winter levels.

The rub is that over the last seven years — when the need has been the greatest in the shank of terrible economic times — funds for utility assistance have been shrinking. The aid, long available to help low-income families, is tied squarely to the economy.

“To put it simply, there are fewer resources for greater need,” said John Rich, the executive director of the Mid America Assistance Coalition, which tracks and manages utility assistance funds for Kansas City-area nonprofits.

One of those nonprofits, Metropolitan Lutheran Ministry, each year provides funds for more than 2,000 area families and individuals to pay utility and other housing bills.

“They walk in daily. They call daily. It breaks our hearts when we have to say no,” said Executive Director Jim Glynn. “We have to say no a lot, because we have a very limited amount of funds. … I would say that that unmet needs versus supply of utility assistance in this community is exceeded by a factor of at least 100 to one.”

Since 2009, the amount of federal money given to Missouri for what is known as LIHEAP — the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program — has dropped from $115 million to $66.5 million. This year, the amount is expected to drop by $5 million.

“That’s because of the economy, the budget and sequestration,” Rich said.

Kansas is similar. In 2009, the state received $49.5 million in federal LIHEAP money. Funding in 2014 is at $27 million. Although utilities such as Kansas City Power & Light Co. and Missouri Gas Energy also provide relief, that aid also is down.

KCP&L, for example, matches 50 cents for every dollar donated by its employees or customers to its Dollar Aid program for utility assistance. Because customer donations have decreased, so has the money available.

Donations are down at a time when those who serve the needy say demand remains high.

Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas says it has been inundated with calls. The Salvation Army of Kansas & Western Missouri showed an 11 percent increase in utility assistance in fiscal 2013 over the previous year.

The United Way of Greater Kansas City actually shows a significant decrease in the number of calls to its 211 help line from people asking for utility assistance. From Dec. 1 to Jan. 12 this year, the help line took 3,000 calls, down from 4,100 the same period a year ago. One possible explanation, advocates said:

“A lot of households have doubled up,” said Diana Kennedy, the director of the Redemptorist Parish Social Service Center, which also has seen an increase in demand for utility assistance. “People can’t afford to pay the rent.” Unknown to landlords, she said, families have moved in together.

Not far from Natasha Smith, 22-year-old Tieara Smith (no relation) lives with her 2-year-old daughter, Amari. They share a bungalow with Tieara Smith’s 13-year-old sister, Caché, and their mother, Sylvia Ramsey, 39.

Ramsey works at Operation Breakthrough. Tieara Smith was hired on four months ago at McDonald’s making $7.35 an hour. She said the gas in their home has been turned off since August when they were unable to pay the outstanding bill of more than $500.

Now Tieara Smith huddles in the house in her sweatshirt. Small electric space heaters heat their bedrooms. The door of the electric oven remains open to heat the galley kitchen. They boil water on the stove top and lug it in pots to the bathtub to bathe.

Although they have tried to get utility assistance, they’ve received no response from the agency they contacted.

“It’ll be so cold in here,” she said sitting on their couch Monday. “I have to stay in my room, stay under the covers.”

Natasha Smith’s difficulties, meantime, go far beyond her bills for gas, electric and water. She is also an example of how for some families the difference between living in a warm home or being homeless can turn on a cascade of bad events.

Smith, who has no relatives in town, said that her troubles truly took hold with her broken vehicle, a 1997 Ford Expedition. “I lost my transportation,” she said.

That meant for several months she had trouble getting to work on time for a $14 an hour job working the phones for a collection agency in Johnson County. Psychologically, the job had already been hard for her. Having been poor and in debt herself, she felt terrible trying to wrest money from people. She conceded that, as her bosses also knew, she was not suited for the work.

“I couldn’t do it,” she said. “People call. They’ve been diagnosed with sickness, lost a job, lost a loved one. It was not me. My manager, he was a wonderful manager, he was like, ‘You minister. You talk to people on the phone. But this is not your calling.’ 

In September, after repeatedly being late for work or missing days, she was let go six months after she was hired.

She had no severance and no savings. The home they lived in had been relatively new to them.

“A blessing,” said Smith, who uses the term often, when speaking of her children and her life in general. “It was the first home of our own without having to reside with anyone.”

After she was fired, the $205 she received each week in Missouri unemployment wasn’t even enough to cover the rent, no less the gas, electric or water. Were it not for $900 per month she receives in SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program formerly known as food stamps, there would be no money to eat.

Facing eviction, Smith has no animus toward her landlord, Benchmark LLC.

“They are very godly people,” she said. “They have been wonderful. They have really tried to work with me. … But they are a business.”

Desperate for help, Smith last week contacted a longtime friend, the daughter of Alvin Brooks, Kansas City’s former mayor pro tem. Brooks’ daughter was one of Smith’s childhood friends.

The result was a mass email to friends and other community leaders to raise money to help Smith stay in her home.

“I think of six kids out on the street,” Brooks said. “I’m 81 years old. My mom used to say, ‘Nothing beats a failure like a try.’ You have to try.”

Brooks, of course, knows that even if he can raise the nearly $4,000 that Smith owes to stay in her home, that will only be a stopgap. Next month, another $925 will be due. He also knows that it is only Missouri’s “cold weather rule” that prevents utilities from shutting off heat during the cold winter months. Come March or April, those bills will have climbed higher and be due.

Brooks’ greater hope is to find Smith a job.

“I want to work,” said Smith, who said she is a certified pharmacy technician and has been busily applying for jobs. “I tell my kids that their responsibility is to be in school. My responsibility is to care for them. It weighs me down that I’m not working.”

Winter in Kansas City is far from over. The weather, she knows, will turn colder.

“I want to get out of this. That is why I cry. I’m doing everything I’m supposed to do. What else is there? I can’t get any answers.”

To reach Eric Adler, call 816-234-4431 or send email to eadler@kcstar.com.

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