This story was produced with generous funding from the Education Writers Association.
A PNM lineman stood outside Rebeca Kueber’s mobile home in Tesuque, about to cut off her service. The single mother of five had received several past-due notices in the mail in the months prior, a burden that got heavier and heavier with each new balance.
Kueber had left a steady job as hostess at La Choza in early 2020, when the restaurant downsized due to the pandemic. A second restaurant job came and went months later, leaving her with a meager unemployment check. When her kids’ schools went remote, she was forced to stay home, which further whittled away the family budget. That meant trips to food pantries in Santa Fe and no new school clothes or shoes for the two youngest children, 11 and 12.
“The simple truth was that at times, we didn’t have the means for anything,” Kueber said in Spanish.
She applied for aid from the state’s emergency rental assistance program (ERAP), which helps underwrite utilities for families in need. She didn’t qualify. There were few options but to take out a loan, which she did, leaving a ding on her credit.
Bills piled up with each passing month — car payment, insurance, electricity, gas and rent on the space where her mobile home was parked.
Now, as the lineman waited outside, Kueber made a frantic call to PNM. Yes, her federal assistance had gone through, she was assured. The shutoff would be dodged for now.
Kueber’s struggle is shared by tens of thousands of New Mexicans — families on the verge of a utility disconnection. Many of them make trade-offs, sacrificing food, medicine or medical care to keep the lights on, homes heated or cooled, water running. They fear that the alternative could be far worse.
Children bear the heaviest burden. “Cutting off utilities doesn’t just mean that a house goes dark,” said Jennifer Ramo, executive director of New Mexico Appleseed, an anti-poverty group devoted to helping children in Santa Fe. “It affects mental health and child welfare, it affects [kids’] ability to do homework. … They’re bearing the impact, and yet they have no power to fix the problem or pay the debt.”
Help has been fragmentary. Chainbreaker Collective and Adelante, two advocacy organizations based in Santa Fe, have been lifelines for Kueber during the months when she couldn’t pay a utility bill or the rent on her mobile home space. Churches and faith-based organizations have similarly triaged resources for people in need, piecing together a couple hundred bucks here and there — usually just enough to tide households over another month, enough to keep a shutoff at bay.
“Starting to fall behind on utilities — that’s the canary in the coal mine that shit is about to hit the fan,” said Cathy Garcia, a community organizer with Chainbreaker. By the time a shutoff looms, she continued, “clearly someone is in crisis and everyone in that household is going to be affected.”
An eviction is a highly visible affair, with people desperately packing up and moving out. A disconnection, in contrast, is private and unseen. Families keep food and medicine in coolers on ice rather than in the refrigerator. They go to the local community center to take showers and suffer freezing cold or sweltering weather with little recourse. And it all happens behind closed doors.
In March 2020, New Mexico tried to anticipate the coming deluge of pandemic-related shutoffs by placing a moratorium on utility disconnections. The moratorium ended last August, leaving some customers with balances in the thousands of dollars. Utility companies urged them to get on payment plans, apply for assistance through ERAP or the federally-funded Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), which helps low-income families pay utility bills and weatherize their homes.
Tens of thousands of New Mexicans applied and received some form of aid. According to the Department of Finance and Administration (DFA), the agency that oversees the state budget, New Mexico has made 24,372 utility awards since April 2021, totaling approximately $18.7 million. In certain rural areas, utility requests outnumbered requests for rental assistance “at a rate of two to one,” according to ERAP spokesman Henry Valdez.
But the programs didn’t help everyone. Though the application process didn’t require a social security number, most undocumented families never applied. Many feared deportation. Others may not have realized that the programs even existed; some preferred seeking assistance through churches, schools and nonprofits, organizations that typically don’t publicize how many people they help.
As a result, it’s difficult to quantify the full extent of the problem. While the Public Regulation Commission has mandated reporting on disconnections for the 66 utilities it oversees, there is no single clearinghouse that tracks all shutoffs and past-due utility bills around the state: In New Mexico, electricity, gas and water are provided by a patchwork of rural cooperatives, investor-owned companies and municipalities.
In a recent filing, PNM reported that some 23,000 residential customers — roughly the population of Gallup — were at risk of a disconnection as of January 2022. Altogether, their unpaid bills amounted to almost $10 million. Eight months earlier, in May 2021, the number of households at risk owed a staggering $20 million. If not for the moratorium, almost 35,000 households could have had their power cut.
A case study: Chaparral, New Mexico
Photos by Don J. Usner / Searchlight New Mexico
This mother of three lives in a mobile home in Chaparral that she pays for with a Section 8 voucher. Because propane has become so expensive, she uses portable electric heaters. Her electric bills average about $200 per month.
“I get desperate because I already want winter to be over,” she said in Spanish. “It stresses me out a lot because I pay for the electricity, but I can’t buy things for the house anymore. Or if I buy things for the house, then I can’t afford electricity.”
Chaparral is one of about 150 colonias in southern New Mexico, where it is not uncommon to see garden hoses and extension cords stretching from one trailer home to another. Defined by a lack of infrastructure — potable water and sewer systems, paved roads, electricity, and other services — these rural borderland communities have high rates of poverty, making it difficult for residents to pay for the meager services that are available.
Many families in Chaparral seek help from Sister Chabela Galbe of Flor y Canto convent. Chabelita, as she’s affectionately known, has been piecing together funds for utilities and other costs over the course of the pandemic. “Many people seek support and trust us,” she said.
When undocumented families and others on the margins feel that they have no other options, they’ll go to women like Chabelita. Unlike the state, these women don’t ask for paperwork.
During the pandemic, Cristina, a mother of two, stopped buying staples like meat and soap, and new clothes for her two daughters, aged 11 and 17. Her electricity bill this winter climbed to $300 a month — nearly 15 percent of her husband’s monthly paycheck, which supported the whole family.
“I am very responsible, or very worried, or whatever you want to call it about paying for things however I can,” said Cristina in Spanish. “You stop buying here or there, but what has to be paid is paid – such as electricity, the things that are important, that are necessary.”
Cristina — who asked to go by a pseudonym because she is undocumented — never applied for state assistance, over worries that it would affect her eligibility for U.S. citizenship.
Berenice Reza has no heating or air conditioning in her home: She relies on portable electric heaters during cold weather and fans when it’s hot. In winter, she also heats her home with her stove, which runs on propane gas.
“(The biggest hardship has been) not having a stable job that pays enough to support my three children,” said Reza. “Now that prices have gone up for all this, I’m fearful that my landlord will talk to me and raise my rent because everything is going up, right? And so, I’m looking for a place elsewhere. Rents have gone up ridiculously.”
Don J. Usner / Searchlight New Mexico
Schoolchildren bear the brunt
New Mexico Appleseed regards utility cutoffs as a particular catastrophe for children, one that thrusts them to the very edge of homelessness.
“That’s the thing that struck me when I saw all of the shutoffs happening in the first place,” said Ramo, the organization’s founder and director. “‘Oh wow, they just made all these kids homeless.’”
She was referring to the definition as provided by the McKinney Vento Act, a federal law that says schools must identify and make available certain services to students who are considered homeless. Under that law, children and youths need not be living on the streets or in cars to qualify; the measure of homelessness covers a spectrum of circumstances, including “substandard housing” that lacks “fundamental utilities such as water, electricity, or heat.”
A plethora of national studies bears that out, with research that children in such circumstances are more “prone to food insecurity, hospitalizations, poorer health ratings, and developmental concerns than children in ‘energy secure’ homes.”
A utility shutoff often produces a domino effect. When the gas is disconnected, families cope by eating canned foods, prepackaged ramen noodle soup or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. When there is a water shutoff, children have to shuffle around to relatives’ and friends’ houses to take showers. Students who don’t have heat may show up to class too tired to focus because they were cold and couldn’t sleep. Without electricity, they are unable to finish homework and complete projects that require an internet connection.
Noemi Sanchez, a caseworker at Adelante, a nonprofit that helps housing-insecure students in Santa Fe Public Schools, has seen that domino effect in motion. She remembers one teenage girl who stopped attending school altogether because she couldn’t shower and felt embarrassed.
Sanchez has also seen families suffer in silence, hesitant to ask for resources from their children’s school. Many of those families are undocumented. “All of it has to do with fear — of CYFD getting involved, of Adelante denying them help, of being deported,” Sanchez said. “There’s so much that other people do not see, but we see it.”
The high cost of poverty
The utilities crisis didn’t just appear when COVID-19 swept the country and globe, spurring waves of unemployment and illness. For decades, families living paycheck to paycheck have spent a disproportionate amount of their total income on utility bills. That’s the Catch-22 of poverty: When families can’t afford a house that’s insulated or equipped with energy-efficient appliances, utility bills are higher.
Research by Greenlink Analytics, a national nonprofit specializing in clean energy and equity research, has found that the amount a household spends on utilities in relation to income should not exceed 3 or 4 percent.
In fact, energy burdens can be more than four times that rate in parts of New Mexico. Greenlink’s most recent data, from 2019, shows that families who live in certain areas of McKinley County, where much of the energy for the state has been extracted or produced, spend close to 18 percent of their income on gas and electric bills. Families in parts of Doña Ana County spend up to 15 percent.
The New Mexico Legislature recently approved a $10 million block grant to reduce utility bills through the replacement of old appliances and updating of inefficient air conditioning and heating systems. But that amount is only a tiny fraction of what’s needed and will, in the end, help no more than 5,000 families.
“It would take about $500 million to update and weatherize all low-income homes in New Mexico,” said House Rep. Kristina Ortez (D-Taos), who sponsored HB37. What’s needed, she and other advocates argue, is a discounted rate for low-income customers. That’s already being done in California and a few other states.
Many advocates believe that utility debt accrued during the pandemic should be forgiven altogether. In New Mexico, where nearly one in five people lives below the poverty line, a “low-income rate would protect the poorest people and it would have a nominal impact on shareholders — pennies,” said Mariel Nanasi, the head of New Energy Economy, a renewable-energy advocacy group based in Santa Fe.
What is home?
Homelessness is pervasive on the streets, roads and underpasses of New Mexico. It’s instantly recognizable in the cardboard signs of people asking for money and the shopping carts filled with worldly possessions. In its rawest form, it’s self-evident.
But what is a home if not a place of reprieve and security? A place to rest, eat, thrive and spend time with family? Not having water to drink or bathe, electricity for warmth and gas for cooking can make those four walls feel virtually unlivable.
Yet the impacts of the utilities crisis on children have largely gone unnoticed. Until now. If anything useful has come out of the pandemic, it’s a recognition of this problem. In response, New Mexico Appleseed is proposing a statewide disconnection moratorium to extend throughout the entire school year for low-income families.
Because in Ramo’s estimation, the only true way to gauge the problem is through the impact on kids.