Covering Cooling Costs: How Phoenix-Area Cities Assist In Beating The Heat

By Grayson Schmidt
Published: Thursday, July 18, 2019 - 9:05am
Updated: Friday, July 19, 2019 - 3:29pm

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Now well into the triple-digits for much of the summer, air-conditioning is a near necessity most Valley residents. But for some, the cost of cooling a home can leave little room for much else.

This is why cities around the Valley and state offer utility assistance to residents who need the help and meet the financial requirements. For those living below the federal poverty line, hot weather means choosing between air-conditioning and eating.

Tammy Frazee, Phoenix’s human services program coordinator, said helping people with cooling costs can prevent significant health issues.

“Without utilities in the home, that is a huge health risk to anyone, specifically seniors, who have health conditions and or small children. So having utility assistance and services available, helps them to know that they have a place to come and get some assistance,” Frazee said.

Criteria for receiving utility assistance varies by city. Last year, Frazee said that Phoenix provided just less than $6.4 million to almost 8,500 families. Of that, Frazee said that the demographics vary from seniors to young families with children.

“Assistance to folks that are low-income is really crucial on the fact that, you know, they're trying to make ends meet,” Frazee said. “We have an ability to help them.”

But getting the word out about the programs sometimes can be the toughest part. And even then, some people may refuse help.

MesaCAN director Scott Coleman said less than 6% of people eligible for assistance in Mesa actually received help paying their utility bill last year, and he doesn’t know why.

“A lot of folks feel like, they come in embarrassed because, ‘I need help.’ There's no shame, there's no guilt,” Coleman said. “We bring them in and we help them as much as we can.”

Though that process may seem intimidating, Coleman said it’s simple. MesaCAN even accepts walk-ins.

"A lot of folks feel like, they come in embarrassed because, ‘I need help.’ There's no shame, there's no guilt. We bring them in and we help them as much as we can."
— Scott Coleman, MesaCAN director

One of the biggest services agencies provide is education on how to lower cooling costs. 

Tom Egan is president and CEO of the Foundation for Senior Living, which serves the Peoria area. Despite the name, Egan said that the agency serves anyone in need of utility assistance, but the real service is helping minimize repeat assistance.

Solutions include getting out of the house and spending time at a shopping mall, public library or community center. Residents also should stay hydrated and talk to the utility company to cut long-term costs.

“To reach out to your utility company and say, you know, I need help, I think they'd much rather have that conversation with a customer than turn someone off,” Egan said.

Deborah Arteaga is executive director of the Tempe Community Action Program, which serves about 2,400 households. She said repeat requests for assistance are relatively few. Most of the time those needing help repeatedly have come into a hardship, she said.

Arteaga said one of the biggest misconceptions about utility assistance programs comes from how compare to similar agencies in cold weather regions.

“There's a big difference in planning that goes to the east coast agencies versus funding that goes to the Southwest, and I think over the years, it's becoming more equitable, because there's more recognition of the heat factor here, as it is, would be in the wintertime on the East Coast,” Arteaga said. “It's better than it used to be funding wise, but it's never enough.”

Arteaga added the reasons behind utility assistance, no matter the region, are still the same. And so are the potential dangers of being without utilities.

“It's a life or death situation,” Arteaga said. “It's more than just paying the bill.”