Updated: January 7, 2014 at 5:16 pm
Note: An article on Page One in Tuesday’s Gazette incorrectly stated the total number of calls 211 Pikes Peak United Way handled in 2013. The correct number was 23,362 for the entire year, of which 5,604 were specifically for utility assistance. Here is a corrected version.
An unprecedented 305 calls came in to 211 Pikes Peak United Way on Dec. 23, more than half from people asking for help to pay their utility bills. After a severe three-day cold snap that sent temperatures plummeting to single digits from Dec. 5 to Dec. 7, officials said it was not surprising to see a surge in the number of customers who need assistance.
Still, the number of calls that day - just two days before Christmas - might have set a record.
"For the four years I've been there, we have never seen a call volume that high," said 211 director Michelle Milner.
Added Colorado Springs Utilities spokeswoman Patrice Lehermeier: "There is a direct correlation between the super cold temperatures and higher utility bills. During those days, Colorado Springs residents used 77 percent more natural gas than what is typical for the season."
In 2013, 211 Pikes Peak United Way handled 23,362 calls, of which 5,604 were specificallly for utility assitance, from El Paso County and 11 other counties in which residents needed help paying utility bills, buying groceries, covering rent and getting transportation. Milner said the vast majority of those calls were from people in the Pikes Peak region who couldn't pay for their utilities.
"We are here to help the indigent and the working poor," Milner said. "People who just can't make ends meet, and they have to choose between rent, food, or utilities. No one should ever have to make that choice."
With Colorado and much of the country facing another round of arctic temperatures, the likelihood of more people having to turn up the heat, and consequently raising their bills, is high. Luckily, Lehermeier said, there is more than one alternative for folks who need help.
Citizens Option to Provide Energy, or COPE, is available year-round and it is funded through donations by Utilities customers and ratepayers, administered through Colorado Springs Utilities.
In addition, the Low Income Energy Assistance Program, or LEAP, is a federally funded assistance program that runs from Nov. 1 through the end of April.
"The programs are available for anyone who qualifies, and during winter we really push LEAP because those are funds that are allotted for the sole purpose of helping with utilities," Lehermeier said.
Although most people don't seek assistance until they receive disconnect notices from their utilities provider, the best time to start applying for LEAP or COPE is as soon as a person knows they will struggle to make the payments, as some applications can take up to 45 days to process, Lehermeier said.
All applicants need to show Colorado identification, proof of residency, Social Security card, proof of income and their disconnect notice. In addition, people can only receive assistance through COPE or LEAP one time per calendar year, Lehermeier said.
"These are truly important programs, because a lot of people who struggle face possible evictions if they don't pay their utility bills," Milner said. "That potentially adds another homeless person, or homeless family, to the community over a bill that's usually a couple hundred dollars."
211 Pikes Peak United Way also connects people with food pantries and with agencies that can assess the energy efficiency of a home in an effort to reduce use.