Step Forward confirms that it served a record number of clients through its Summer Crisis Program in 2023.
The Summer Crisis Program provides a benefit once per cooling season to Cuyahoga County residents who are at or below 175 percent of the Federal Poverty Guidelines. The program assists individuals and families needing assistance to pay their electric utility bills. It also provides air conditioners and fans to those who need them.
As of October 2023, Step Forward had experienced an unprecedented 21,166 phone calls from people asking for assistance. The Community Action Agency has also processed a record number of applications, signaling the increasing importance of HEAP in Greater Cleveland.
“We have seen clients we have never seen before,” Paul Billups, Step Forward’s Director of HEAP (Home Energy Assistance Program), said. “They have never known about our programs. They have never needed assistance. They were always able to maintain but as the choices became harder for paying for regular household expenses and now keeping your utilities on, our program has come to their attention.”
In 2018, Step Forward recorded 807 utility approvals. The agency distributed 307 air conditioners units and $212,084 in funding.
In 2019, the program saw slight growth with 809 utility approvals, 319 air conditioner units, and 155 fans. The agency distributed $187,430 in funding.
In 2020, Step Forward’s Summer Crisis Program faced unique and exceptional circumstances. That year marked a turning point as a multitude of families experienced hardships due to job loss, illness, and various other economic challenges. The global pandemic had a profound impact on the economy, too, leaving many individuals and households in precarious financial situations. The uncertainty and disruptions caused by COVID-19 made the need for assistance more acute than ever.
Additionally, with more people spending more time at home due to lockdowns and social distancing measures, utility bills skyrocketed. The increased use of electricity and air conditioning, coupled with the economic changes, led to an upsurge in bills for many households. These factors combined to create a pressing need for assistance with utility bills, air conditioning units and fans. Step Forward emerged as a critical support system, offering much needed relief to families struggling to make ends meet. Step Forward approved 1,235 applications for Summer Crisis assistance and distributed 169 air conditioner units, 198 fans, and $421,617 in funds.
In 2021, the Summer Crisis Program’s guidelines changed to meet the need. Instead of each household being limited to one fan, they were eligible to receive up to two. Step Forward’s momentum continued, approving 1,552 utility assistance applications during Summer Crisis, 463 A/C units, and 971 fans. The funding distribution climbed to $629,258.
The program thrived into 2022. Step Forward recorded 1,529 utility approvals and provided 789 air conditioning units and 1,375 fans to households. The total funding reached an impressive $707,559.
The year 2023 was truly remarkable. Step Forward received a record-breaking number of phone calls from people asking for utility assistance. The agency approved 1,997 applications in a three-month period. Representatives handed out 1,485 A/C units and an astonishing 3,070 fans. The total funding distributed reached $1,008,701.
“The significance of Step Forward’s Summer Crisis Program cannot be understated,” Diane Johnson, Step Forward’s External Energy Assistance Services Manager for HEAP, said. “It serves as a lifeline for so many families during challenging months of the year. The program not only eases the financial burden, but it also provides peace of mind, ensuring their family can stay cool and comfortable during the scorching summer months.”
Over the last six years of Step Forward’s Summer Crisis Program, the agency has been able to offer assistance to 7,929 households, providing 3,532 air conditioning units and 5,769 fans. The total funding distributed since 2018 stands at a substantial $3,166,649.
“This year, we also have had to ask for additional funding in order to close out the program,” Billups said. “This is the third consecutive year that we have had to do that because the need is so great.”
Billups encouraged people to apply for HEAP if they need it.
“We’re here if the assistance is needed! We can help you maintain your services. Don’t be afraid to ask. It’s not an entitlement program. We are here to maintain your household,” he said.
Despite Step Forward’s Summer Crisis Program ending on September 30, HEAP is now gearing up for its Winter Crisis Program, which begins on November 1. The program helps income-eligible Greater Cleveland residents who are threatened with disconnection, have been disconnected, or have less than a 25 percent supply of bulk fuel in their tank to maintain utility service. The one-time benefit is to be used in emergency situations when a household is faced with disconnection.
“Utilities cover so many areas. It affects the kids on their way to school. It affects them when coming home trying to do homework. If you don’t have those utilities on, it affects so many areas of your life. It is so essential," Johnson said."It is great to be a part of the community so that we can help so many households, not only with maintaining their heat in the winter and their cooling in the summer, but their overall quality of life.”
Step Forward continues to accept applications for its Percentage of Income Payment Plan (PIPP+) and Low-Income Household Water Assistance Program (LIHWAP).
"It's also essential to commend the dedicated HEAP staff. Their commitment and hard work have been instrumental in ensuring that as many requests for assistance as possible are fulfilled. Their tireless efforts have made a significant difference in the lives of countless individuals and families," Billups said.
Information about any of Step Forward’s energy assistance programs can be found here.
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