According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey, one out of three households nationwide reported that they were unable to pay their home energy bills in the last 12 months. While that figure looks better in Nebraska, at 18.2% statewide, it’s still far too many customers facing financial hardship.
National Energy Assistance Day is Feb. 1. The goal of the day is to raise awareness of the plights of utility customers struggling to pay their bills, along with the programs that are available to help.
“Our calls spiked for utility assistance, specifically in the last couple years,” said Fratina McCraney, 211 program manager for United Way of the Midlands. United Way runs the 211 hotline for essential services.
The agency reports that this past year, 80% of their financial assistance funding went toward utility bills.
“This was mostly due to other federal programs assisting with rent over utilities,” McCraney said. “A lot of the (current) need is related to federal rent programs ending and clients now being responsible for their own rent and utility bills. The need has spiked again.”
Sometimes, it doesn’t take much for a customer to fall behind on bills. Take the following customers who recently called 211 for help. Their last names are not being used to protect their privacy.
These customers are among 929 households helped by OPPD’s Energy Assistance Program last year, which dispersed a total of $303,360 in assistance in 2022. Metropolitan Utility District’s Home Fund provided $186,260 to 544 households in 2022.
“OPPD has a variety of customer assistance programs and resources for our customers,” said Michelle Dearing, OPPD Customer Care coordinator. “We really want anybody who is worried they may not be able to pay their bill to call us. We want to work through the problem and try to find solutions together before they fall too far behind.”
To reach OPPD, customers should dial 402-536-4131 in the Omaha area. Outside of the metro, customers may call toll-free at 877-536-4131. M.U.D. customers should call 402-554-6666 or toll-free at 800-732-5864 to talk through payment options for their gas and water bill.
The federally funded Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) provides more than 80% of utility bill assistance for OPPD customers. To qualify for that program, customers’ household incomes must be within 150% of the federal poverty income. However, OPPD also has a number of its own energy assistance programs, with wider parameters.
“Our programs help fill the gap that exists in the community in the need for assistance and that gap is continuing to grow wider,” said Britton Gabel, OPPD’s manager of Advocacy Solutions.
Like McCraney, Gabel said customers are feeling the impact of pandemic relief coming to an end. So are utilities. “Relief earmarked for utilities is ending. So, our assistance funds are dwindling. At the same time, the need in our communities continues,” said Gabel.
Representatives with both OPPD and M.U.D. say they wish they had the resources to help even more customers. That’s where donations come in.
The utilities are teaming up to raise money through the 16th year of the Heat the Streets Run & Walk for Warmth. It takes place Saturday, March 4, in Zone 6 at Aksarben Village, 1911 S. 67th St. in Omaha. Registration is open through March 1 at HeatTheStreetsOmaha.org. Organizers are hoping to get 1,000 registrants. By the end of January, they were at about half that goal.
“We have a number of ways to participate, from timed races with prizes to a mile walk, or even virtually. Or, people can simply donate through the website,” said Gabel. “Every dollar counts. This funding is more important than ever to help us meet our customers’ critical needs.”
Money raised through Heat the Streets are administered by Dollar Energy Fund, a registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit that serves low-income utility customers. Funding is equally distributed between M.U.D.’s Home Fund and OPPD’s Energy Assistance Program. Dollar Energy Fund works with 35 local entities throughout the utilities’ service territories to provide this financial assistance for utility bills to our neighbors in need.
Last year’s event raised more than $150,000, with 100% of those funds benefiting customers in need of assistance with their utility bills. The donations from this event alone provided much-needed assistance for 460 households served by M.U.D. and OPPD.
“We want to remove the stigma that sometimes comes with financial assistance,” said Gabel. “Many of those calling for assistance have never had to reach out before. While that can be humbling, any of us could experience unexpected challenges. Our programs are designed to help get customers get back on their feet.”
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