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Economy & Business

St. Louis-Area Utility Companies Prepare For Increase In Bill Assistance This Winter

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Kayla Drake
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Utility companies and nonprofits in the St. Louis region have seen an increase of people who need energy bill assistance by the thousands.

When Nautica was laid off from her job at a day care in April, she ran through a list of items she needed to buy: food, diapers, wipes. As a single mother, the thought of how she could possibly afford those necessities and still pay her utility bills and rent was overwhelming.

“I kind of started losing hope, I’m not going to lie,” said Nautica, who spoke to St. Louis Public Radio on the condition that her last name not be published.

Then, she saw an advertisement on Facebook for Cool Down St. Louis, a program that eventually helped her pay off $874 in energy bills.

Nautica was one of thousands in the metro area who has sought help paying energy bills since the coronavirus pandemic started. Requests to Cool Down St. Louis for utility bill assistance tripled this summer compared to last summer. The program is run by a nonprofit, Heat Up St. Louis, that assists Missouri and Illinois residents with unpaid cooling and heating bills.

To keep up with the demand this year, Heat Up St. Louis secured more than $7 million from Ameren and federal sources, including CARES Act funds from St. Louis and St. Louis County. The nonprofit is not charging administrative fees, so more of the money can go straight to paying utility bills, said Heat Up St. Louis founder Gentry Trotter.

High unemployment rates, spurred by the pandemic, have expanded his nonprofit’s usual customer base — elderly people and people with disabilities — to people who, until recently, were living middle-class lifestyles.

“[We’ve had an] onslaught of middle-class, working people living paycheck to paycheck,” Trotter said. “Most of them will tell you, ‘Well, we've never done this before. We don't know anything about energy assistance.’”

Virtual schooling and working from home has also driven up utility costs, he said.

Cool Down St. Louis has already given $1 million of CARES Act funds to help people pay utility bills this summer. That’s more than the nonprofit’s entire 2019 budget.

The nonprofit is preparing to ramp up this winter.

“Our winter is going to be just as bad as our summer,” Trotter said.

Utility companies are also beefing up assistance programs to help people afford energy bills this winter.

Ameren, an electric and gas company, has donated $5 million toward utility assistance this year, more than double its typical amount. The company provides electricity to more than 500,000 households and small businesses in the St. Louis region.

Both Ameren and local gas provider Spire have resumed disconnections after lifting moratoriums in August and June. But representatives from both companies said disconnections are a last resort.

People who are struggling should contact the company now, said Connie Taylor, Ameren’s head of Energy Assistance.

“We are very sensitive to the needs of our most vulnerable customers and work very closely with them to prevent that disconnection,” she said.

People who make too much money to qualify for assistance programs but still can’t afford their utility bills can make payment plans with Ameren and Spire.

Energy assistance programs

Heat Up St. Louis:

  • Fill out an online application. You must include how you have been affected by the coronavirus pandemic.
  • Community agencies, including the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis, People’s Community and Salvation Army also can refer people.
  • The nonprofit is hosting an energy assistance webinar for St. Louis and St. Louis County residents on Sept. 30. Only 300 spots are available, and it is free.

Ameren:

  • COVID-19 Clean Slate Program will partner with agencies to pay 75% of your bill, if you can make a down payment of 25%.
  • Keeping Current is a payment assistance program that provides a monthly bill credit.
  • Deferred Payment Agreements can be set up if you owe for past monthly payments.
  • Free weatherization for households. Preference is given to elderly people and people with disabilities.
  • Ameren Illinois is extending its moratorium in certain cases for people impacted by COVID-19 until March 2021.

Spire:

  • Missouri households can qualify for a one-time $100 grant that ends on Sept. 30.
  • The company has given assistance to 30,000 customers through its DollarHelp program. Call 800-887-4173 to see if you qualify.

Missouri Department of Social Services:

  • The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program recently launched an online application and extended the summer program until Oct. 31. Households can qualify for $600 in assistance.
  • Spire also has a webinar explaining how to fill out the program’s application.

Follow Kayla on Twitter: @_kayladrake

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