| Nov 12, 2014

James Norris lives a quiet life. He has lived in a small house in Northbrook for the last 15 years, after moving there with his wife from Oshawa.

They both suffered health problems. He has Multiple Sclerosis and was forced to retire from the auto industry after injuring his back, and his wife suffered from lung disease, which ended up taking her life in 2006.

Norris lives alone now, trying to make ends meet on a Disability pension from his work, and some support from the Ontario Disability Support Program.

He receives $1085 a month, has a $285 mortgage, and he also has hydro, property tax, and phone bills to pay. That leaves only about $400 for food and day-to-day necessities. And then there is heat.

“As the weather gets colder this year, I have no oil in my furnace, and no money to buy oil,” he said on a cool, cloudy afternoon, from his candle lit kitchen. He wore a housecoat over his clothes, and I kept my coat on in his kitchen. A small space heater was on in the sitting room.

For the past seven years, ever since his wife died, James Norris has slowly built up a balance on his VISA card, to the point where he has to pay $400 each month towards the balance. He has a driver's license but could not keep a car on the road, and now faces the fact that he cannot afford oil this winter.

There is a program that he has accessed in the past through the Ontario Works department in Napanee that has covered one tank of oil per winter in the past, but he cannot access that until at least January.

Getting to January is a problem, however, and the fact that oil companies have a minimum delivery of $400 worth of oil has him basically out of luck.

“It is really tight surviving right now. I only get food that is on sale. I basically shop when I need to. I certainly could eat better,” he said. “I try to get out and volunteer as much as I can. I'd rather be out doing something than sitting at home. Between my back and MS I can't work but when I feel ok I can volunteer, but I always need to be picked up and brought home.”

He says that his situation is not unique.

“There are many other people like me and worse. Costs go up but benefits don't. At $1085 a month, it doesn't add up for someone like me to get through the winter,” he said.

Ann Marie Langan works for the Legal Clinic, which provides legal services for residents of Lanark, Frontenac and Lennox and Addington from an office at Northern Frontenac Community Services in Sharbot Lake. She has been providing legal advice to clients facing financial difficulties as well.

“More and more families in the area are facing a lot of financial hardship,” she said, “and it only escalates when winter comes.”

Kendra Godfrey lives in Mountain Grove with her husband Sean. Between them they have seven children ranging from five to 20 years of age, and six of them are living at home.

Sean receives Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) support and Kelly works at the Maples in Sharbot Lake. They have had financial struggles, and not only do they face the coming winter and the cost of oil for their rental home, Ontario Hydro is threatening to pull the plug on their electricity.

“Since we moved here two years ago, ODSP has been paying $240 a month to Hydro from Sean's funds all that time. I have been after Hydro One to send us bills that whole time, and each time gave them our address but the bill never came, so I had no way of knowing if we were paying enough,” she said.

On October 2, a letter came to their home by Purolator, saying they owed $6,900 were going to have their power cut us off unless they made arrangements within 10 days to start paying off the debt. Hydro One is looking for $600 per month for service and $240 per month for two and a half years to pay off the debt.

Anne Marie Langan is working on the case with Kendra Godfrey, and last week put in a demand for the bills but has not received them.

Meanwhile in a subsequent phone call with a representative from Hydro One, Kendra found out that it is no longer $6,900 that Hydro is asking for in back payments. “I talked to someone on October 27 and she said that it is $8,500 that is owing, so I don't know what is going on at all now.”

Not only are the potential hydro costs spiralling out of control, oil costs are very high in their home, leading Godfrey to wonder how they will keep the home warm and bright this winter.

“We live as carefully as we can, don't leave lights on, and we close off part of the house in the winter to save money,

but this hydro mess has made it impossible for us to budget,” she said.

Michele Zigman administers a number of emergency funding programs for Frontenac County residents out of her office in Sydenham with Southern Frontenac Community Services. She is also worried about the coming winter.

“We are still working with people who are trying to recover from last winter, which was cold and long and particularly hard on those who heat with propane. This coming winter could be really devastating to a lot of people,” she said.

Wigman pointed out that most of the money she is able to access to support families struggling with costs is subject to strict conditions, one of them being that the families do not receive social assistance. She also said that the funds she makes use of are provincial dollars administered by the City of Kingston.

“Frontenac County, based on its share of the regional population, should receive more funding than it does for these programs,” she said.

A new homelessness initiative will bring a change in the supports for families in situations such as those faced by James Norris and Kendra Godfrey's family, but funding remains an issue.

“The goal is for people to have sustainable housing in the long term,” said Zigman, “and my fear is that people will be forced to give up their houses if this winter is as bad as last winter was.”

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