Guest Blog: Keeping the Lights On: One Volunteer’s Perspective

Dana Harmon

Keeping the Lights On: One Volunteer’s Perspective

GUEST BLOG POST  |  MAY 17, 2019
By: Katherine Dombrowski

As a long-time volunteer with the Society of St. Vincent de Paul (SVdP), an organization that offers tangible assistance to those in need on a person-to-person basis, I am excited about the strategic nature of TEPRI’s mission to inspire lasting energy solutions for low-income communities. During my 17 years with SVdP, I have visited with hundreds of families in their homes and apartments. The vast majority of my clients need help paying their electric bills – it’s the number one request – and nearly all of them live in housing that is of lower quality and lower energy efficiency than modern standards. As such, my typical client living in a two-bedroom apartment often has a higher electric bill than I do in my four-bedroom house.

The high energy cost associated with poor-quality housing is invisible to the renter who is shopping for a place to live, and it is the low-income consumer who is more likely to pay that high cost.  Once the rental contract is signed and the high utility bills start rolling in, low-income families do not have the power to negotiate with their landlords for efficiency improvements that would lessen their monthly energy burden. The landlords have no financial incentive to upgrade insulation and air conditioners when it is the renters bearing the cost of the inefficiency. When renters are late in paying rent, they face an uphill battle to even ask for a broken appliance to be fixed.  Yet, these low-income renters may pay nearly as much in rent for their poorly insulated apartment with old appliances as their more affluent neighbors with newer, more energy efficient apartments down the street.

Add it all together and you have a huge financial squeeze for thousands of families in the neighborhoods surrounding my north Austin church.   When the squeeze is too tight and my clients default on their rent or on their electric bills, they pay even higher costs when an eviction comes or the electricity is shutoff.  The costs are also emotional, psychological, and physical – a home with no electricity quickly becomes unsafe or uninhabitable.

For this reason, I believe the financial assistance that SVdP provides has its highest value in preventing evictions and electric shut-offs.  Some of my friends tell me that they don’t understand the value of this type of emergency financial assistance.  They believe that time and money would be better spent on more “strategic” investments in low-income families to develop money management skills and job skills.  The idealist in me agrees, but I’m a practical engineer in my day job, and this carries over to my volunteer work.  People don’t have the time or the energy to invest in themselves if they don’t have the security and peace of mind that comes with a stable place to live, with the lights on, and the water flowing.

To quote my society’s patron, St. Vincent de Paul: “Charity is infinitely inventive.” Thus, I am excited about TEPRI’s mission because it fills a vital role in advocating and seeking change for low-income families.  I hope that TEPRI can catalyze innovative solutions for utility providers and local governments to empower low-income consumers and lower their energy burden.  With lower energy bills, low-income families gain more flexibility to meet their other financial needs; and once those basic needs are met, they may have more time for the strategic investment in their families that can bring them out of poverty.

I would be happy to talk with others in the TEPRI community about my experiences providing direct assistance to low-income families needing utility bill assistance, so please feel free to reach out to me at kdd.svdp@gmail.com.

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