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Food bank already feeling heat

By Megan Gillis, Ottawa Sun - October 6, 2005

Peter Tilley, executive director of the Ottawa Food Bank, is worried that increased home heating costs will force more families to obtain food at the centre.

A $250 (one-time) heating fuel rebate won't keep Ottawa's poor from having to choose between being cold or hungry, the director of the Ottawa Food Bank argues.

"I don't think it's going to help as much as the hurt that's going to come forward," Peter Tilley said. "We're already seeing record numbers of new people coming to food banks.

"What's going to hit us in November, December, January, February is going to be very scary."

The Food Bank feeds 38,000 people a month -- up 12% from a year ago -- and many working families who already have to choose between paying rent, heating their homes or eating.

The federal government announced a $1.4-billion plan yesterday to soften the blow of record energy prices on the poor. It includes rebates of $125 and $250 for low-income seniors and families with kids and money to make rental housing more energy efficient.

Environmental and anti-poverty groups say the government has to get poor people out of the cold, then help them save energy and cash in the future.


EFFICIENCY 'ANSWER'

"We recognize the need to get people through the winter but we've done this several times before," said John Bennett of the Sierra Club of Canada. "The real answer to the problem of helping low-income people through these price spikes is to help them make their homes more efficient."

The government has spent millions helping homeowners retrofit but there's been no help for landlords whose tenants pay utilities or for tenants to invest in a rental.

"We're not going to see $20-a-barrel oil again," Bennett said. "Investing in a new furnace or insulation will pay you back again and again and address major environmental problems of climate change and air pollution."

The problem with the fuel rebate is that too many poor Canadians won't get it, argued Dennis Howlett of the National Anti-poverty Organization.

After dead people and convicts got the last payout linked to GST rebates, the feds are giving cash to seniors who get the Guaranteed Income Supplement and families who get the Child Tax Benefit Supplement. That leaves out up to two million low-income people.

Even before price spikes, the poorest Canadians spent 14% of their income on heating, three times the average.


'LIFE-OR-DEATH ISSUE'

Spending $2,000 to $4,000 to retrofit a poor family's home would save them about a third of their energy bill.

"When energy prices go up, everyone is feeling it but it has a disproportionate impact on poor people," Howlett said.

"The poorest people are already deciding whether to pay the rent or feed the kids. Now with the prices going up, it really is a very serious, life-or-death issue for a lot of poor families."


FAST FUEL FACTS

  • In Ontario, natural gas users should expect to see big bills starting in January, the next time marketers can raise rates to reflect prices that have doubled since summer.
  • In Ottawa, furnace oil prices have already jumped 34% to 85.5 cents a litre from 63.7 cents a year ago.
  • The only good news is that electricity prices won't rise until April.

---

The cost of heating an 1,800-square-foot house in southern Ontario for a year as of this month, according to Energy Probe:

  • $2,904 for electricity
  • $2,836 for heating oil
  • $1,861 for natural gas (mid-efficiency furnace)
  • $1,606 for natural gas (high-efficiency furnace)

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