State of Emergency

By Danielle Chanzes | December 19, 2017
Additional reporting by Jacqueline Curnick and Drea Cornejo

“Thank you for calling the Division of Social Services. At this time, we are not distributing applications for rent, mortgage, and/or utility services …” answering machine at Alachua County Social Services as of December 7, 2017

For families that face having their power shut off as the weather gets colder, or paying the utility bill instead of the grocery bill, these are the words that cause eyes to well and throats to tighten, choked with frustration.

In a county where the poverty rate is 22 percent, electricity costs are some of the highest in the state, and the poorest residents spend an uncommonly high portion of income on electricity bills, just paying those bills has become an emergency for some.

“There is no call for assistance that we get more as a local church than for people needing help with their utility bills,” says Kevin Thorpe, Senior Pastor at Faith Missionary Baptist Church.

At the 2nd annual Alachua County Affordability Summit hosted by the Gainesville Chamber of Commerce this fall, Thorpe recounted how a college-aged parishioner had received a $450 utility bill while living in a one-bedroom apartment, and how other parishioners living in Lincoln Estates claim to have never received a utility bill under $500.

“That’s the only reality that I know of the people that I am coming in contact with on a constant basis,” Thorpe said.

There is no call for assistance that we get more as a local church than for people needing help with their utility bills

Social-service agencies, nonprofits and churches in Alachua County work year-round to provide emergency aid to keep families’ power from being shut off. They report being overwhelmed with emergency requests, particularly in the wake of Hurricane Irma. The storm was a double punch for some 20,000 Gainesville Regional Utilities (GRU) customers. When utility workers couldn’t get to meters to read them, GRU estimated some bills, resulting in hikes. Opening those bills was an annoyance for many customers. But for others, it was a crisis.

‘A drop in the bucket’

Agency leaders say with or without the storm and its aftermath, there is simply not enough aid to cover utility-bill emergencies. The funding available “is really a drop in the bucket,” says Jackie Oliver, emergency service coordinator at Catholic Charities, which provides aid to more than 1,200 people a year, distributing funds from FEMA, United Way and Project SHARE – the GRU payment-assistance program that helps elderly, disabled and those in financial hardship due to illness through voluntary donations by GRU employees and customers.

A glance at Oliver’s calendar reveals a schedule jam-packed with utility consultations, where she reviews bills with residents and determines how much financial assistance she can provide based on their circumstances. She attributes the high level of need here to GRU’s high rates, and the poor condition of low-income housing. “The worse apartment they pick, the higher the electric bill, because the landlord isn’t keeping it up,” she says. “It’s nothing to see $400 and $500 light bills.”

Other organizations providing emergency utility assistance include Alachua County Social Services, the Central Florida Community Action Agency, Eldercare of Alachua County, Gainesville Community Ministry and the Salvation Army. Yet, it isn’t always easy to access the resources.

Jackie Leonis says high utility bills have impacted her ability to buy food for herself and her animals. Transportation challenges prevent her from trying to navigate social services. Photo by Drea Cornejo.
Jackie Leonis says high utility bills have impacted her ability to buy food for herself and her animals. Transportation challenges prevent her from trying to navigate social services. Photo by Drea Cornejo.

Gainesville resident Jackie Leonis lives in northeast Gainesville in a mobile home on a fixed disability income of $1,200 a month. After Hurricane Irma, she says her bill was double what she usually pays. She wanted to apply for emergency assistance but she couldn’t get to the appointments because she doesn’t have a car, and public transportation did not line up with the service hours.

Instead, she said she cut down on food for both herself and her animals for a while, and put off buying some household essentials. “It feels like you can’t get out of it,” says Leonis. “You’re kind of stuck in that cycle, and you’re stuck at the bottom of it.”

No guarantees

In addition to limited funding,many of the organizations have strict guidelines for eligibility, limits on the amount of assistance and slim time frames for when they can provide it.

Alachua County Social Services can only help those with income at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty level. Utility assistance is handled in group settings, meaning individual applications aren’t accepted, but group meetings are set once to twice a month (depending on funding and need) where around 50 applicants attend an orientation. Afterward, attendees can consult with a social worker about possible emergency aid.

To obtain an appointment with Gainesville Community Ministry to discuss GRU past-due bills and disconnects, customers in need must call a number only on Mondays between 8 and 8:30 a.m.

The Central Florida Community Action Agency (CFCAA) provides utility assistance to families in Alachua, Marion and Levy counties through the federal Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). Eligibility requires recipients to be at or below 150 of the federal poverty level and to have not received assistance from CFCAA within the past six months. Applying takes calling an 800 number and working through automated prompts to book an appointment. However, there is no guarantee you’ll get one, as there are a limited number of appointments available each day.

Tiffany McKenzie, director of community development at CFCAA, says the agency’s funding allows utility assistance for only 20 percent of those who apply for it. Between 2015 and 2016, the agency helped 4,921 families at risk of losing electric and/or gas services. If that number represents 20 percent in need, it would mean more than 24,000 families facing utility emergencies.

The Salvation Army provides utility assistance for some 1,500 families a year, a number that varies with available funding. To apply, individuals must set up an appointment by calling between 10 a.m. and noon on Fridays when countless others are also trying to call. Recipients must have experienced some extra hardship in the previous month, such as loss of income, a transition or a loss in the family. The bill must be past due and the applicant must have received an extension and exhausted all other options. Finally, the help is once in a lifetime.

Jackie Oliver, emergency service coordinator at Gainesville's Catholic Charities, says the core problems are lack of affordable housing and economic opportunities.
Jackie Oliver, emergency service coordinator at Gainesville’s Catholic Charities, says the core problems are lack of affordable housing and economic opportunities.

Ultimately, says Catholic Charities’ Oliver, the community would be wise to tackle the core problems instead of always the emergencies. Beyond high utility rates and poor-quality rental properties with old air conditioners that send money out the window, she sees affordable housing and economic opportunity as the two biggest challenges.

“The housing is high and there aren’t enough factories here, so you either have a good job and you make $25 an hour, or you work at a convenience store or Wendy’s for minimum wage,” she says. “If that’s the case and you’re renting and you get this huge electric bill, you’re going to suffer here in Alachua County. There’s no ‘in-between’ jobs.”

Like preventative healthcare vs. emergency room visits, everyone seems to agree that working proactively on more-efficient housing and other solutions is the best strategy. Yet Gainesville stays stuck in a cycle of high poverty rates and a high energy burden for its poorest citizens – much like the personal cycle of poverty that Jackie Leonis described.

“You try to put a little money away to make a better life for you, and then some emergency comes along,” Leonis says. “I don’t know what the answer is.”

Up next: Aging In Place »