Bill Talbot, a former union carpenter, spent more than a month in the hospital after falling off a roof. He couldn’t work, fell behind on bills, and had his utilities shut off by the city of Seattle.
He remembers that it was demoralizing for him and his wife, but worse for his teenage children to not have running water in the house.
“The children were discouraged, ashamed to go to school,” said Talbot, who now works for the Salvation Army’s White Center branch. “It’s unimaginable to me that we shut off the water to families with children.”
The Seattle City Council is now considering legislation that would give a second emergency credit of up to $340 per year for any family registered in its low-income Utility Discount Program with children in the home. Currently, only one credit is available annually per household.
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Seattle Public Utilities said it shut off water to 138 households in 2012 that were part of its low-income program. Of those, 68 had children under 18 years old.
Councilmember Jean Godden, who is sponsoring the legislation, said providing a second credit to those 68 families would cost the city about $20,000 a year. She called that a small subsidy in the context of the utilities’ nearly billion-dollar annual budget.
Social-service providers who offer utility assistance told council members at a committee hearing Tuesday that they think the number of families with children whose water is shut off is much greater. They said many people don’t know that city help is available and that the city doesn’t do enough to publicize the low-income program.
For example, the current water shut-off notice sent to customers warns that 50 percent of the delinquent amount must be paid to prevent a shut-off. Nowhere on the warning notice does it suggest the customer could be eligible for city assistance.
Once the water is shut off, the customer must pay the entire past-due amount to restore service.
Tara Luckie, executive director of West Seattle Helpline, said her agency got calls from 270 families last year facing a one-time emergency that made them unable to pay their utility bill. The agency had the funds to help 102 of them.
“We hear hundreds of stories each year about people borrowing hoses from neighbors or carrying buckets of water so they can flush their toilets, cook and wash dishes. The kids go without bathing. These are the working poor, people facing a death, a medical emergency, an unexpected layoff. These are not people chronically behind on bills.”
Luckie said that over the past three months, the agency has polled its clients and found that fewer than 25 percent are aware of city programs that offer utility discount assistance.
And she questioned the city statistics that only 68 families with children had their water shut off. She noted that nearly 4,000 households lost water service in 2012 because of delinquent bills, yet only 165 were in the low-income utility assistance program.
“People are afraid to call attention to themselves. The city needs to get creative about getting the word out,” Luckie said.
Mary Witter, a program assistant at the Ballard Food Bank, told council members that some families arrive with buckets to fill with water, and use the restrooms to clean up. She said some are seniors taking care of grandchildren. They typically don’t know what resources are available and have never asked for help.
“At this point they’re begging and they don’t want to beg,” she said.
Lynn Thompson: firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-464-8305. On Twitter:@lthompsontimes