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People are having trouble paying utility bills. Here's how to get help

Johnny Lye

More people have applied for financial assistance with utility bills in recent years, according to the Cleveland nonprofit CHN Housing Partners.

Laurie Leverette, director of utilities and emergency services at CHN, said rising utility costs and other factors are driving more people to the nonprofit for the first time to seek help. There always has been a significant need, though, because of the city’s high poverty rate.

"The need has ever outweighed our capacity, but we're doing all that we can to meet demand and serve people where they are," she said.

Ideastream Public Media and the nonprofit Signal Cleveland newsroom — in partnership with the Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative — have produced a guide on how to navigate the process of applying for utility assistance.

CHN and fellow Cleveland nonprofit Step Forward administer the applications for the federal Home Energy Assistance Program (HEAP) and the state's Percentage of Income Payment Plan (PIPP). Those are the two main electric and gas assistance programs in Ohio. CHN also has several programs to help people with water and sewer bills.

Ideastream Public Media has previously reported about the challenges people face when seeking help with utility bills. Those struggles include finding all the documentation required, navigating the application process and waiting for long periods to be enrolled in programs.

"A lot of what we see is missing documents," Leverette said. "I don't necessarily want to get into the weeds, but say, for instance, someone is applying for a state-funded program and those programs require proof of citizenship for everyone in the household. So we have to pend, or hold, an application if we're missing birth certificates or Social Security cards and things of that nature, things that are required to process the application."

A recent change in state policy has made things a little easier for some applicants though, Leverette said. Now, first-time applicants or those who simply need to reverify their income for the PIPP program don’t need to attend an appointment with a staff member. They can just apply digitally or by dropping off their application at CHN or Step Forward’s drop boxes.

Leverette explained that for those seeking crisis assistance during the winter months, applicants will typically receive a 30-day hold on their electric or gas accounts from their energy provider after they've received a disconnection notice, and then another five-day hold after they meet with a CHN representative. So it's critical that applicants, when they come in for their appointment, have documentation ready, documents such as pay stubs and ID cards for household members.

It can take up to 10 weeks for applications to be processed for the PIPP discount program, or other non-emergency assistance, Leverette said. There typically is a two-month grace period where those who need to recertify that they are eligible for PIPP can remain in the program. Recertification must happen each year.

While CHN and Step Forward are the two places to apply for state utility assistance programs in Cleveland, there are separate energy assistance agencies in every other county. You can find yours by going to this link.

Conor Morris is the education reporter for Ideastream Public Media.