Before COVID-19 reared its ugly head in Colorado, exacting a devastating toll on lives and livelihoods, the nonprofit Energy Outreach Colorado had evidence that one in every four Colorado households struggled to pay monthly utility bills.

Today, with pandemic-related job losses and reduced incomes, the need for help in paying these bills has skyrocketed — from concerning to critical.

“Between April 2020 and March 2021, our Heat Help Hotline received over 250,000 calls,” said Denise Stepto, EOC’s chief communications officer. Those calls resulted in EOC paying past-due utility bills for some 25,000 households, for a total of $13 million.

This, Stepto added, represents a 46% increase in the number of bills paid and a 75% increase in assistance dollars over the same period the previous year.

Energy Outreach Colorado was established in 1989 with the belief that everyone deserves affordable access to the resources vital to powering their homes, be it electricity, gas, propane or wood. As noted on the EOC website, “When everyone can afford and maintain their home, then they can focus on living, rather than merely surviving.”

“Even 30-plus years ago, Colorado legislators realized that a fair amount of people couldn’t afford their utility bills and that there were few resources to help them,” Stepto said. “Legislatively they created us and encouraged utility companies to work with us. Since then, we’ve taken EOC from just a bill-payment assistance program to one that addresses a wider range of issues relating to energy stability.”

In addition to helping income-qualifying Coloradans pay their energy bills, EOC is the only statewide nonprofit that:

• Provides emergency home-energy assistance and longer-term approaches to reduce energy use, lower costs and develop innovative energy solutions. This includes home energy audits, repairs to, or replacement of, inefficient furnaces, and helping develop energy budgets for families whose bills are soaring more devices are in increased use to accommodate work or virtual learning demands.

• Leverages resources and partnerships with utilities, the state and corporate and individual donors to serve more people in need;

• Helps stabilize energy service provider workforces by hiring contract workers throughout the state; and

• Creates systemic change by sharing its expertise in consumer energy issues and affordable energy policies with the Colorado Public Utilities Commission, the Colorado General Assembly and gas and electric distribution companies.

In 2020, Energy Outreach Colorado served 32,626 households. Renters comprised the largest demographic (18,672), while households with children numbered 14,230. There were 7,525 rural households served, 6,658 households where one or more members had a disability, and 5,650 households occupied by senior citizens.

“Our clients aren’t people who just aren’t paying their bills,” Stepto said. “They’re seniors on fixed incomes, veterans, baristas, teachers, service providers, grocery store workers, people with unexpected medical bills or emergencies … you name it. And with COVID, the number of those needing our help is growing by unprecedented amounts.”

So far this year, EOC has spent $3 million “just to keep people safe.”

People like Angie, who found herself unable to keep up with her energy bills. (Last names of recipients were withheld for privacy purposes.)

Angie “has always had enough money to get by, but never enough to spare,” Stepto said. “So when she got laid off from her job, Angie fell behind financially. Finding a new job was hard, but catching up on her bills was harder; she couldn’t afford to pay the backlog.”

Fortunately for Angie, a neighbor was familiar with Energy Outreach Colorado and made a call on Angie’s behalf. EOC not only paid her utility bills but made some energy improvements to her home that would help reduce her energy expenditures.

“I had no idea that there was a way to get help,” Angie said. “I am so grateful that Energy Outreach Colorado helped me get back on my feet.”

Retired teachers Rex and Betty had paid off their home of 40 years and managed to live in relative comfort on a modest fixed income. When their furnace began to malfunction, they couldn’t afford the repairs, so they turned it off and wore their coats to bed.

“We knew that our furnace was a safety issue because it might leak carbon monoxide, but we simply couldn’t afford to fix it,” Betty said. When the couple mentioned their situation to a member of their church, the rightly concerned member contacted EOC, whose Crisis Intervention Program replaced the furnace at no charge.

Betty’s heartfelt response: “We are so glad to be warm again.”

The COVID pandemic also caused 17 nonprofit organizations to seek EOC’s help. “They were at risk of having to shut down because they couldn’t afford to meet their respective missions and pay their utility bills,” Stepto said. “We helped by offering bill payment assistance, making their buildings energy efficient and finding other solutions to reducing their energy costs.”

People seeking EOC assistance are referred by friends, neighbors, church groups and agencies like the Department of Health and Human Services, Goodwill and The Action Center. Grateful as the clients are for help received, Stepto said that a reluctance to seek help remains.

“A lot of people, especially our older clients, are ashamed to say they need help. They say they’ve never been in a situation like this before, but they’ve received a shut-off notice and they’re desperate and scared. Still, there’s that delicate line of the dignity component …"

Take client Ruth D., for example. “I was ashamed to ask for help and I had no way to get back on track. But waking up without lights and heat was even more scary than picking up the phone. I was so relieved that the bill payment assistance program helped me keep my utilities on.”

Tami, from Jefferson County, agreed. “For six months I had been worried about getting disconnected. I wouldn’t have been able to keep my lights on without this help. I am so grateful.”

EOC this year received an allocation from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act. In addition, its approximate $20 million budget is funded by distributions from the Colorado Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LEAP), investment income, grants and donations from Xcel Energy and other utility companies and fundraising events like an annual golf tournament.

The 2020 tourney, presented by RE/MAX and held at the private Sanctuary course near Sedalia, raised $162,300 – enough to pay utility bills for 130 households, complete 25 emergency furnace repairs or replacements and weatherize 13 affordable housing apartments with energy-efficient measures.

EOC’s goal, Stepto said, is to put itself out of business. However, that isn’t likely to happen any time soon, thanks to rising energy costs and lingering effects from the pandemic.

But, she added, “Dialog has to happen. This is the moment. This is it, right here. The noise just isn’t loud enough on this issue. And that’s our job at EOC, to make the noise louder because there’s an enormous amount of worry out there and no one knows when the end will be in sight. We have to get our legislators and others talking because we do have the ability to tackle the problems.”

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