Living in her car: Utility bills pushing some working Calgarians over the edge

Non-profit says calls for help on utility bills surged this spring and never dropped off, with one Calgary woman forced to give up her house and live in a campground this summer to save money as she tries to pay down the bill.

Jade Cromwell had her life in order, then the pandemic hit and costs increased

Jade Cromwell has been living in her car, campgrounds and couchsurfing at friends houses since June because she couldn't afford to pay her utility bills. (Jade Cromwell)

Jade Cromwell had her life in order. 

At 34, she had her own landscaping company, a house on a rent-to-own contract and three roommates to help pay the bills. But each time COVID-19 cases surged in Alberta, the economic impact fell like a hammer and cracked her carefully arranged life a little more. 

Last fall, her company folded; her roommates also lost jobs and had to move out. Even when she got a new job in forestry education, it wasn't enough. Her utility bill was the final blow.

"I'm pretty conscious about my eco-footprint. But the bills just seem to stay at this steady $500 a month," she said. "That was pretty extreme. I didn't know how they were that high and it didn't seem to make sense, but it was mostly service fees.

"If they weren't there, I probably would still have my home. The utilities just destroyed it and wrecked my credit on top of it."

Cromwell broke the contract on her house and spent the summer living in a tent in a Bragg Creek campground. She's now living in her car and on friends' couches, trying to find something more secure before the winter hits.

Higher bills

She's not alone. Utility bills have been increasing across the province for several reasons, including the phase out of coal and a provincial decision to end the electricity rate cap.

The Trellis Society normally sees a spike in calls for help each spring as energy companies start trying to collect on outstanding bills from peak winter months, said Angela Clarke, Chief Strategy Officer with the organization that helps people access resources.

Normally, those calls dwindle by summer as utility bills take a dip. This year, they did not. 

"With COVID, we saw that everyone was home far more than they probably anticipated because of restrictions and things," Clarke said.

"People are spending more time in their homes. And so then what we're seeing is the unexpected impact of that. People saw an increase in their utility bills because their usage went up in a time when normally it wouldn't."

Jade Cromwell washed her clothes in the river while living at a campground this summer, hanging them to dry on a clothesline. (Jade Cromwell)

Unfortunately, Clarke says there's little they can do to help as there are limited funds available in the system to support with utility bills. 

"What we often find is if someone hasn't paid their utility bill for whatever reason, they maybe also haven't paid rent," Clarke said.

"Maybe their phone bills have been disconnected, maybe they're short on groceries, maybe they haven't been able to pay school fees. So we're trying to look at it from a holistic view while assessing what the most urgent need is."

From campgrounds to parking lots

Cromwell said living in a campground for $200 a month this summer wasn't bad. But now that it's colder, she finds a Wal-Mart parking lot, folds the back seats down on her Chevy Cruze and sleeps with her feet in the trunk. It's not comfortable, but even in this, she's not alone.

She says there were probably four other people staying in the campground for similar reasons and there are others staying in the Wal-Mart parking lots. There's a Facebook page dedicated to what's called Vanlife and many have joined not because it's trendy, but a necessity. 

"They're like, well, at least I'll have a community," said Cromwell.

"Many people are in their cars now because they can't afford the way the world is going."

Cromwell said her boss at her new job has been extremely supportive. She's now hoping to work with a financial advisor to pay off the outstanding $1,200 debt and rent a warmer place soon.

"This isn't really living. It's just kind of surviving," she said. "My plan is to just, bit by bit, work with my bank and a financial adviser … so I can move forward and make sure that my credit isn't damaged too bad.

"And I guess try to make more conscious decisions when it comes to my utilities. I wasn't aware it was going to be so high. My strategy is just to find a better strategy and stay a bit more stable. The old way doesn't work anymore."

Clarke says she believes Calgary has hit a crisis tipping point with the volume of people struggling to pay their utility bills, but is hopeful from conversations she's had with utility companies saying they want to be part of the solution to the problem.

"Looking at distribution rates, services, maybe alternate options for people who are struggling with poverty or people who are accessing other types of support," Clarke said. 

With files from Malika Karim


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