Step Forward’s President and CEO, Jacklyn A. Chisholm, Ph.D., participated in a recent conversation about the social impact of utility debt.
The webinar was hosted by the United Way of Greater Cleveland as one of the organization’s community conversations. The recent series is to provide a forum to raise awareness and increase engagement in important topics within the community.
According to the United Way of Greater Cleveland, utility assistance is the second highest request from people who call 211 in Cuyahoga County. The resource line received more than 34,000 calls for utility assistance in 2022 and continues to receive more than 1,700 calls per month in 2023.
“Our 211 program stands ready to assist individuals and families needing utility assistance,” Sharon Sobol Jordan, United Way of Greater Cleveland’s President and CEO, said. “We are actively working with Step Forward and CHN Housing Partners to streamline the screening and application process for these important utility assistance programs.”
Data gathered by the United Way of Greater Cleveland shows thousands of households in Greater Cleveland are unable to afford basic utility costs. According to the organization, about one in five Cleveland Water Department customers are at least one month behind on their water bill and more than 27,000 Ohioans have had their gas or electric services shut off due to nonpayment.
“What is the reason for this problem?” the moderator asked first.
“I think it’s a multi-product problem,” Dr. Chisholm responded. “You have people who are trying to afford rent and mortgage, and then in addition to that, their utilities and food and clothing, but with utilities, it’s very difficult. If you get behind, it’s very difficult to catch up.”
Ms. Stewart Shaw echoed Dr. Chisholm’s thoughts.
“The one thing people must know with utilities is that it keeps moving forward,” she said. “So, you may get a past-due notice, but you then will get another bill with current usage, so it’s just a snowball effect.”
Ms. Birkby weighed in regarding the safety concerns one could have when it comes to utility shutoffs.
“We’re really concerned about the health impacts of not only utility disconnections and what happens if you actually get to the point of being shut off from your utilities, but also the compounding stress that happens when you are worried about a pending utility disconnection or you’re really stressed out about the bill,” she said. “From a health point of view, safety wise, you have very simple things like using your oven to heat your house because you don’t want to be cold, and you’re disconnected, so you turn your oven on and open the door, which could potentially cause a carbon monoxide issue.”
“We are really in particular worried about how it effects pregnant women and young babies,” she explained. “What happens if you can’t store your formula or milk in your refrigerator because you have no power or maybe you co-sleep because you’re cold?”
The American Academy of Pediatrics advise that infants should be placed on a firm sleep surface, such as a mattress in a safety-approved crib, covered by a fitted sheet and no other bedding or soft objects to reduce the risk of SIDS and suffocation. In addition, the agency has recommended infants sleep in the parents’ room, close to the parents’ bed, but on a separate surface that is designed for infants to prevent anything from covering their head, suffocation, strangulation, or entrapment that may occur when the infant is sleeping on an adult bed.
“Let me give you an example,” Dr. Chisholm added. “Last week, I received a call from a lady who received a disconnection notice. She is on oxygen. Her biggest concern is that if her electricity goes down, she is not going to be able to breathe. So, this is for many people, a life or death situation.”
Much of the remaining conversation during the webinar focused on how residents of Cuyahoga County could work with their utility companies to avoid utility debt and default.
“We always tell people when you know you are behind, the easiest thing to do is to get in touch with your utility company. See if you can make arrangements. Usually, they’re pretty good about that because ideally, they don’t want you to fall behind. If you do fall behind, through Step Forward, we have utility assistance. It’s our Home Energy Assistance Program. You can go online, and our job is to help you. If you receive a disconnection notice, you immediately go to the front of the line because we don’t want your service to be disconnected,” Dr. Chisholm advocated.
Ms. Stewart Shaw agreed that if consumers find themselves falling behind, they should immediately contact their utility company and ask for a payment plan. Often, the utility company can provide additional resources within the community.
“If there is a medical situation in the home, consumers can contact the utility company and get what is called a medical certificate. A medical certificate is available for consumers who have a medical situation in the home and where a disconnection of utility service would be especially dangerous permanent member of the household,” she suggested.
A medical certificate would prevent a disconnection for up to 30 days and would reconnect services in the event the service was disconnected within the prior 21 days. The time allotment allows residents to identify and reach out for assistance.
The moderator asked whether any systemic changes were necessary to provide a more equitable utility system.
“I think a lot of our community members need assistance to apply for assistance,” Ms. Birkby said. “We need a broader team of navigators out in the community that can help people walk through the really complex processes that are a part of applying for utility assistance. The Community Action Agencies can’t do that because they have to process all of the paperwork.”
One concern Dr. Chisholm and Step Forward’s Home Energy Assistance Program has had is the limitation to only book appointments 28 days in advance.
“The problem with that is a person who needs assistance would need to call us every day to get an appointment,” she acknowledged. “So you have a challenge where you have people who need help but our system only allows a certain number of people to get appointments because the state told us that we can only book appointments 28 days in advance. It makes it very difficult for people to get help.”
Dr. Chisholm described the scheduling restrictions as a “major issue.”
“It has been like that for quite some time,” Ms. Stewart Shaw acknowledged. “As stated earlier, with utility service, everything keeps moving forward. A typical billing cycle for a regulated utility is between 28 and maybe a 32-day-billing cycle. If a consumer is making an appointment and the appointment is 28 days out, that means that by the time they get into the appointment, they’re going to have another current amount due.”
Typically, a regulated utility company must provide a 14-day notice prior to disconnection. During the winter season, there is an additional 10-day notice.
“By the time a consumer falls behind, they’re at least a billing cycle or two behind,” Ms. Stewart Shaw continued. “So, before they get their first disconnect notice, they may already be in arrear 60 days. Then, they reach out for assistance, but it takes quite a few days to make an appointment, and everything is moving forward.”
The panel detailed the differences between the Percentage of Income Payment Plan (PIPP) and HEAP’s seasonal crisis programs. Cuyahoga County residents can find information about Step Forward’s different energy assistance programs and when each program is available here.
Each of the individuals participating in the conversation, including Dr. Chisholm, acknowledged the strain the high demand for utility assistance has taken on Community Action Agency staff. In response, Step Forward recently announced it would partner with the United Way so that the United Way would initiate the client intake process.
“We have so many people calling that are trying to get assistance. Now that they will take on that responsibility, it will allow our staff to just focus on processing applications,” Dr. Chisholm explained.
Eventually, the agency will direct all HEAP calls to 211.
As the webinar moved into the question-and-answer period, panel members discussed application eligibility and deadlines, the assistance reverification process, how people can locate home weatherization options, how the public could advocate for Community Action Agencies and additional funding for those who need it, and more.
“Hopefully, this conversation can be public education,” Ms. Birkby said. “When I came into working in this space, I had no idea how many people were struggling with this issue in Cuyahoga County and the city of Cleveland. We spend a lot of time talking about a lot of issues, but this one has sort of been under the radar and not really brought to the forefront as a key social need in our community. I hope we can elevate that and say this is actually a really big problem and one we should all work to address.”
The community conversation concluded with each panel member addressing residents.
“Recognize that there are resources available. Step Forward is one, CHN Housing Partners is the other HEAP provider,” Dr. Chisholm noted. “Don’t be ashamed. Also, don’t assume that you don’t qualify. Apply, because you might. And I think the most important part for part of this conversation is, make certain that you know the documentation because if you apply, and you don’t complete the application, there is nothing we can do to help.”
To learn more about Step Forward's Home Energy Assistance Program, click here.
Watch the recording of the conversation here: