Vett Spain, of Joplin, uses both electricity and natural gas to heat her home during the winter.
During extremely cold winter months — and this winter has been among the coldest for the area — it can cost her almost $500 a month to heat her home.
“I tried to cover up the windows with plastic,” she said recently, but she’s still behind by $150 on her heating bills, trying to pay what she can each month to catch up.
Spain said she went to the Salvation Army last month, but the agency was out of funding to help her.
She said she also went to the Economic Security Corp. in December, but it was out of money at the time, too.
Even though the weather has improved this week, with temperatures expected to be in the mid-70s today, the concern is that so many people are now behind on their heating bills that when the state’s Cold Weather Rule is lifted on March 31, more customers than normal will be at risk of seeing their utilities disconnected.
Representatives of Empire District Electric Co. and Laclede Gas Co., which owns Missouri Gas Energy, say they are working with customers who are struggling to pay their bills by directing them to assistance programs, and they are urging customers who are behind on their bills to call them before March 31.
‘A real need’
Lt. James Curry, with the Joplin Salvation Army, said money for the organization’s Emergency Assistance Program generally runs out by the fifth day of each month.
“From the donations, we can budget per month on how much we can give out,” Curry said. “If we just did it all at once, we’d be out by late November. Then we couldn’t help people throughout the rest of the year.”
The program provides aid to families on an emergency basis, including those that need help paying for rent, utilities, clothing or food.
Curry said that last winter, people were bringing in $200 to $300 utility bills.
“This year, it’s $600 and $700,” he said.
“It’s a real need. People are struggling. I’m glad we can help as much as we can, but at the same time ... well, the need is just greater than the resources that are available right now.”
Kathy Lewis, executive director of Crosslines Churches of the Joplin Area, has seen the same thing. The organization receives funding via the United Way and grants to help residents who are behind on rent and utility bills.
“We have definitely been fielding more calls for utility assistance because of the long, cold winter,” Lewis said. “The number of people is definitely up, and so is the dollar amount of the bills.”
Tammy Walker, director of community development with the Economic Security Corp., said there has been an increase this winter in the number of applicants for the ESC’s Energy Assistance Program. The program provides assistance to an applicant once a year to help pay primary fuel source heating bills. The benefit amount is based upon household size, income and the type of fuel used for home heating.
The program runs from October through March. Last year, more than 6,000 applications were processed, Walker said. This winter, that number has grown by about 200, she said.
Walker said the ESC also offers the Energy Crisis Intervention Program, which is primarily used to restore or prevent disconnection of service for at least 30 days. The program is split between winter and summer months. Winter assistance is provided from October through May — if money is available.
Funding for the program ran out in December — earlier than usual, Walker said. The program received a small amount of additional funding a few weeks ago, she said, “but it doesn’t last long.”
“When we have a tough winter like this year, people are really struggling, and there isn’t enough funding to meet the needs that are out there,” she said.