COLUMBIA — Sheldon Stephens thought it was a power outage.
He tried the buttons on his TV. Flicked the light switch. Nothing.
On Nov. 13, the 47-year-old self-employed maintenance man was back in his downtown Columbia apartment after an unsuccessful morning looking for work at the Coffee Zone and Downtown Deli.
The economic outlook at the moment is bleak. This time, it followed Stephens home.
His power had been cut because of nonpayment. With no money to turn it back on, Stephens knew he needed help.
“I am more concerned about the food in my fridge, and I’ve got no light, but I can survive,” he said.
The experience of choosing among necessities — food, electricity, running water — is something other mid-Missourians are experiencing in record numbers this year.
New applications for utility assistance have increased 58 percent at Central Missouri Community Action, the largest social service organization in the region. Emergency help for individuals facing shutoffs has more than doubled.
“Shutoffs have been outrageous,” said energy coordinator Melody Rodriguez.
Columbia’s utilities office also is facing record demand. Call volumes have exceeded 1,000 a day early in the past two months, when assistance is available and need is at its highest. That’s about twice as many as usual.
Many are from people with situations like Stephens’.
After being self-employed for eight years, he now wants to work for someone else. The day his electricity was turned off, he didn’t have $1.50 for a cup of coffee.
Facing tough choices, he did something he never thought he’d have to do. He went to the Central Missouri Community Action office asking for help.
There, he was one of thousands.
Melody Rodriguez has processed so many new applications for energy assistance, she filled three boxes and stacked them up as an office table, complete with a pink, plastic cover and fake tree.
“We see people we’ve never seen before,” she said. “People who have never been in our system – at least for the past five years I’ve been here.”
Rodriguez expects to easily eclipse last year’s record number of 7,000 new applications for help.
The agency distributed about $10,000 a week in aid last year, Rodriguez said. This year, it gives away that much in a day.
She said the one thread that ties this new group of applicants together is need.
MU economics Professor Joe Haslag said Missouri's economy is almost a mirror image of the U.S. economy. Declines in income, employment, industrial production and retail sales are contributors to the economic contraction.
The impetus that spurred a need for utility help is too complex to narrow to one factor, he said.
“Everybody’s concerned, and how it (the economy) affects them is of greater concern,” Haslag said.
Rodriguez said a new group of needy elderly often are facing disconnect notices for the first time. Others are choosing between paying their utility bills and going without food and medications.
Other applicants are asking for help to avoid eviction or foreclosure.
Families who were barely making ends meet last year simply can’t do it now, said Central Missouri Community Action Boone County community service supervisor Adam Tipton.
“They are people you see working at restaurants or local convenience stores. If you go somewhere and purchase clothes, there’s a good chance that the person helping you has possibly been here.
“They’re just hard-working families who are now in really, really dire need.”
Stephens had requested a payment extension each month for the past three months. He assumed Columbia Water and Light would let him do it again in November.
Instead, the city utility told him to fork over $142, including a $30 reactivation to get his power back.
“It’s not something we do because we are meanies,” Utility and Billing Manager Patricia Bollman said. “If you don’t pay your bill or keep your agreement, we have to shut you off.”
When Stephens told a utility case manager he didn’t have the money, she suggested he visit Central Missouri Community Action, an organization he’d never heard of.
The process of applying for aid revealed that Stephens’ income has averaged $655 a month for the past three months. That’s a figure he never expected when he moved to Columbia from St. Joseph in January.
He chose Columbia because “it’s a great town for a maintenance man” and started helping downtown businesses and homeowners. As his referrals grew, he said, he was making about $1,000 a month, an amount he felt comfortable with.
“Things were real good,” he said.
When the economy began its downturn over the summer – which Halsag said included declines in employment and gross domestic product – Stephens lowered personal expenses to about $700 a month. He shut off his gas. He never expected to need to invoke the Missouri Cold Weather Rule, which requires companies to supply gas when the temperature dips below freezing.
When the stock market took its epic plunge Sept. 29, Stephens noticed a change in his customers' attitudes overnight.
“One of the good things for me is people decide, ‘OK, well, instead of moving and buying a bigger house, I’ll just fix up what I’ve got,’ ” he said.
“Then it was like, ‘I’ll have to live with that leaky faucet for another month.' That started (happening) more and more.’ ”
As work evaporated, Stephens tried to find parts on sale or persuade clients that they didn’t need top-of-the-line products. By mid-September, he had given up.
“Right now,” he said, “all the hustling in the world ain’t getting the jobs.”
Columbia’s utilities office is feeling the squeeze, too.
On Nov. 3, records show the office received 1,200 calls but fewer than half were answered. The staff couldn’t handle the volume and still attend to the hundreds waiting in line at the same time.
"In my mind, that’s pandemonium,” Bollman said.
She hears the same stories other agencies do: I lost my job. My parents lost their jobs. My hours were cut back. We had two paychecks, and now we only have one.
“It may be simplistic, but it’s true," she said. "It's the economy."
MU assistant public affairs Professor Colleen Heflin divides this new group — those suffering from increases in heating, food and transportation and those in the midst of the housing crisis.
Add in the recent trouble in the job market, and Heflin says it’s a “triple whammy” for people considering utility help.
“It may be the same individual facing all three of these, but I think of these as separate levers that are leading to the same increase,” she said.
“The people in the fringe are first to go, certainly. I suspect we are going to see this go deeper.”
To help seniors, the handicapped and families with children, Columbia has the CASH and HELP programs. The programs depend on donations, which are dwindling.
A mass e-mail to utility customers on Nov. 19 asked: “Can you imagine choosing between buying food and paying your utility bill? It is not an easy choice for many Columbians.”
The programs currently can help only 90 of the 750 families a month who apply.
“There’s an awful lot of month left at the end of the money,” Bollman said.
Stephens borrowed $30 from a friend on Nov. 14 and worked out a deal to get his electricity back, with the help of a special plan for the self-employed.
Later that night, he headed home, saw the flashing lights of a service truck and breathed a sigh of relief.
“I left the switch to the dining room on,” Stephens said, “and I was like ‘Hallelujah! The relief of knowing you can cook dinner again."
His story, like that of many Missourians’, isn’t over. He owes $125 on his electric bill, $80 for water and sewer, and more for gas. All are due in December.
He is late paying for his rent and his truck, and he plans to apply for additional energy assistance.
“It’s not like it’s embarrassing,” he said. “Everybody needs help every now and then.”