Each night, as the temperature plunges, the Ben Youssefs pile onto a mattress on their living room floor, where they will fall asleep.
There’s the father, Chokri, a 50-year-old cab driver; pregnant mother, Radhia Ben Jemoa, 32; and an adorable 1-year-old daughter, Yasmine. She sleeps between her parents, under the blankets.
They just want to stay warm. But thanks to a yearlong billing dispute with Austin Energy, the only heat they have comes from one another.
“My concern is my kid and my wife,” Chokri said. “It was very cold, very cold last night.”
The shutoff, which he said began four months ago, also meant the family lost access to other city utilities, such as running water.
Since then, his wife has been hospitalized twice, he said. According to a letter from a hospital social worker, one of the visits to treat dehydration was “most likely due to not having access to water in her duplex home.”
The social worker added, “It is important that there is access to running water and electricity in the home.”
At issue is a $2,700 electric bill, which the family disputes and Chokri says there is no way they could pay immediately.
He wants to sit down with someone at the utility and go over the bill, but he says Austin Energy representatives have refused to meet in person.
Austin Energy spokesman Robert Cullick said the utility would not comment on specific customers or cases but added that the utility provides payment plan options for those who fall behind.
“We require customers to make a minimum payment as part of these arrangements, and if they do that successfully they may have an unlimited number of payment arrangements,” he said in a statement. “When they are unsuccessful in completing their commitments, the parameters of the payment arrangement change.”
He added: “Austin Energy strives to provide excellent customer service. We also have to protect against abuse of the community-owned system.”
Council Member Ora Houston’s office told the American-Statesman that staff members are attempting to help the Ben Youssefs get their power and heat turned back on.
The routine of the family of three — soon to be four — revolves around the calculus of staying warm: The downstairs living room is warmer than the bedroom upstairs. Sleeping together is warmer than apart.
On a Saturday afternoon, that meant young Yasmine had to wear a bright pink puffer jacket and nearly matching sweatpants as she tumbled around and played inside their bitterly cold apartment.
Her bundled-up mother, who expects a baby boy by the month’s end, kept a watchful eye on the girl as her father laid out page after page of documents that shined a light on their sojourn to electric poverty.
The outrageously large bills from Austin Energy began to arrive more than a year ago. One from October 2015 totaled more than $2,000.
The expectant parents, who emigrated from Tunisia, suspected their old apartment’s air conditioning and heating unit was at fault. It was running far too often — all day and night, Chokri recalled — even considering the Texas heat. He said he called the utility, which told him to take it up with his landlord.
In November, his wife complained about the heating and air conditioning unit in a certified letter to the manager of their then-apartment complex. Two months later, in late January, the wiring to the unit overheated and caught fire.
“We found the wiring to the electric heating unit had melted and the breaker to the heater was tripped,” firefighters wrote in the incident report, a copy of which Chokri kept. “We believe the wires leading from the breaker panel to the heating unit overheated and the insulation began to burn, which caused some paper products to ignite on the floor in the closet.”
It would take them two months to find a new permanent home, this time a rental house in a working-class Northeast Austin neighborhood. Chokri said he quit his job as a long-haul trucker for a cab, so he could be closer to his family.
Initially, a friend helped them set up their utilities with the city. Chokri then moved the account into his name, which is when the problems started again.
His wife, who doesn’t speak English, is so upset by the shutoff, he says, she wants to return to North Africa.
“In the Third World, as they say, we don’t do that. No matter what, even if no payment, or anything, we don’t do that,” he said. “There’s always other ways to fix the problem. But turn (off) the electric and the water? … In the greatest country in the world?”
Correction: This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Yasmine’s name.