As winter approaches in Southeast Missouri, it's possible that many have already considered the preparation that goes with it, getting an early buy on snow shovels and the salt used to melt icy sidewalks.
But as temperatures dip lower, also on the minds of area residents may be the costs of electricity and natural gas bills they use to stay warm during the season.
Ameren Missouri announced Friday that customers in Cape Girardeau will pay 8 cents less per unit of natural gas as compared to last year, something that will surely come as good news when it comes to paying winter heating bills.
But the news of lower natural gas prices will have little affect on those struggling to keep up with their bills, said Kathleen Capps, community service representative of East Missouri Action Agency's office in Cape Girardeau.
"While every little bit helps," Capps said, "I don't believe the 8-cent drop will have much of an affect for people who have full- or part-time jobs and are trying to keep their heads above water. They still have other payments to make, like a car payment if they're lucky enough to have a car. Then there's the high cost of gasoline. Then there's the cost of medical bills for themselves or for their children. Then there's the rent. "
Capps said that large numbers of Cape Girardeau residents are already visiting her office seeking utility assistance. When she was interviewed Friday, Capps said she had already seen between 45 and 60 people that day. According to her, they don't have anywhere else to go.
"The people I've met aren't thrilled to be here," she said. "The last thing they want is a handout. But due to circumstances beyond their control, they have little choice. People line up outside our door before we even open, and all of them have been inquiring about help during the cold months. We do the best we can for them."
The East Missouri Action Agency is a not-for-profit corporation that offers the utility-assistance program through a grant from the state of Missouri, but Capps couldn't say with certainty the amount her office has received for the upcoming winter months. She was sure, however, that the amount her office distributes will run out quickly.
"October was the sign-up period for the elderly and disabled," she said, "and November is the period for everyone else. But there's only so much money to go around."
The Salvation Army of Cape Girardeau has encountered people in need of assistance with utility bills and, like the East Missouri Action Agency, they have only limited funding available.
"We have a matching-funds grant from the state that unfortunately will not arrive until mid-January," said Tina Rodgers, a Salvation Army case worker. "Until then, we won't be able to provide utility assistance for those in need."
Rodgers said she is happy that Missouri's "cold weather rule" is in effect, which from Nov. 1 through March 31 protects customers from having their heat turned off when it's freezing outside. Natural gas companies and electric utilities regulated by the Public Service Commission are barred from discontinuing heat-related gas and electric services when the temperature is expected to fall below 32 degrees in the following 24 hours.
"It's a blessing we have that," Rodgers said. "But what about when the temperature hovers at 33 or 34 degrees? That's still plenty cold, and a family can still have their utilities turned off. It's saddening to think of children who will be facing something like that."
Still, Rodgers said the Salvation Army continues to help people who come to them. Echoing the concerns of Capps, she sees several people per day who are at the end of their rope.
"Things have gotten out of hand for some people. They're not making enough money at their jobs, and they'll set aside money to go for heat and then the next month it will go for rent. Maybe it will be for groceries. It goes round and round."
Rodgers knows of two families who have recently had their utilities discontinued.
"What we did was give every family member a sleeping bag to help them stay warm," she said. "St. Vincent DePaul makes heavy sleeping bags and donates them to the Salvation Army, and we were glad to give them out."
Still, Rodgers wishes more could be done at the moment.
"We'll be able to help people with their utilities in a more direct way in January, but knowing that people could have their heat turned off before then is disheartening. With the Lord's grace, we'll continue to help them any way we can."
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