A program helping Manitobans keep their lights on is expected to pick back up after a slow year, a welcome move as Manitobans see a significant hike in natural gas prices as the days grow colder.

In 2004, an emergency program helping families facing hardship pay their hydro bills was birthed out of a partnership with Manitoba Hydro and the Salvation Army.

"The Neighbours Helping Neighbours program is designed to help people who have fallen behind on their bill payments with Manitoba Hydro," Salvation Army pastor and director Lieutenant Brian Dueck says. "For us, it is a blessing anytime we can step into one of those gaps or one of those needs in the community. We never like to see people fall into these kinds of situations, but the reality is this happens."

A hike in natural gas prices could add to an increase in help requests this year.

The Public Utilities Board says starting November 1, the current Primary Gas rate will be increasing from $0.1323/m3 to $0.1916/m3. This will cost the average household an additional $124 per year.

"Primary Gas is sold on a cost-recovery basis without markup by Centra to Manitoba customers," a statement from the Public Utilities Board says.

In Manitoba, unemployment rates dipped to 7.9 percent by the end of 2020. Manitoba Hydro Media Relations Officer Bruce Owen says people should know that they are "certainly not alone" if they need help. Those in need of help were deterred to get it last year because of the very reason why they needed it.

bruce owensBruce Owens says many families faced strains trying to pay bills, like cell phone and grocery bills, over the past year and a half. (Screenshot: Zoom)

"Part of that drop," says Owen, "is for people to become eligible there had to be face-to-face meetings with the program administrator Salvation Army, and of course, that wasn't possible because for the most part we are all stuck at home."

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nhn reportThe 2020/2021 report had the lowest grant uptake rate it has seen in years, close to one-third of the previous five-year low. (Manitoba Hydro)

Dueck says the pandemic stopped them from being able to see people in person, and when they could, many were concerned about COVID-19.

"We weren't sure as the pandemic really kicked into gear what effect it would have on the program. We anticipated an increase in need at some point along the line but it has become evident that during the pandemic has not been the time where people aren't really reaching out to receive that assistance or aren't feeling conformable to fulfill their appointments to receive it," Dueck says

duueck in officeBrian Dueck says many people can end up helping their actual neighbours with their Neighbours Helping Neighbours and not realize it. (Screenshot: Zoom)

By the end of the year, 177 households were helped, with $63,921 in grants being given out. This is less than half of the number of households that were helped the year before.

Owen says donations fluctuate greatly each year, with 2020/2021 being no exception. Salvation Army received $72,136 donations for this program, which is lower than usual.

"Manitobans have a history of giving and certainly we have noticed that with Neighbours Helping Neighbours," Owens says.

Now that they can meet in person, Dueck is expecting more people to take advantage of the program this winter.

"It really is the community helping one another. We never want it to be where we are an isolated entity helping people. We want the community to be invested in this. Let's help each other out."