CLEVELAND — It's estimated that nationwide, households are 40 billion dollars behind in utility bills – driven in large part to income loss caused by COVID-19.
For some Clevelanders, just staying warm or keeping the water running is a daily challenge.
In a 3News collaboration, investigator Rachel Polansky reveals the hardships many are facing to keep the lights on.
We recently introduced you to Terrance Dewalt, an army veteran and Cleveland resident.
“What's in my hand is bills that are surely getting ready to shut off,” Dewalt said, as he looked through his utility bills.
“What is your biggest fear?” 3News investigator Rachel Polansky asked.
“That I might freeze to death because they're gonna cut my power,” said Dewalt.
While Terrance Dewalt never had COVID-19, he felt just as much a victim of the pandemic, finding himself out of work and out of answers.
"I have no income coming in and I'm not getting any help from any of these services,” said Dewalt.
Terrance's story struck a chord with many of our 3News viewers, including Lake County veteran, Don Buckholz, who wanted to hand deliver a gift to Terrance.
“I wanted to meet you and show some appreciation,” Buckholz told Dewalt. “I know you were struggling with bills so I got a little non-perishable food package and a gift for you.”
After Terrance unwrapped his gift, he began opening his card.
“That's the only Christmas card I got this year,” said Dewalt.
That’s when he discovered another gift, $200 dollars to put toward his utility bills.
“I highly appreciate it, very much,” said Dewalt, as he got up and shook Buckholz hand and gave him a hug.
Another 3News viewer also reached out to Polansky who wanted to help pay Dewalt’s bills. She asked to remain anonymous but she sent another $300 to cover his electric bill.
While it's a touching story and one we’re so happy to share – it doesn't take away from the larger issue, that so many of our neighbors are still struggling to pay their utility bills.
“You have to do it online and no one answers their phones,” said Katrina Tunkara, Cleveland resident.
Katrina Tunkara tells 3News she's turned to community and state agencies for help – as have her friends -- and no one's had success.
“It makes me feel sad because most people are out of work or unemployed, and they have to choose between paying rent or putting food on the table,” said Tunkara.
These people are not alone.
For Cleveland’s water department, almost 90,000 customers (of about 1.4 million) were behind on payments as of Nov. 9; for Cleveland Public Power, about 28,500 customers (of about 80,000) had a balance "more than 30 days old," according to public records provided by the city.
The average amount owed was $481 for water customers, compared with $281.39 for Cleveland Public Power. All of these numbers were as of Nov. 9; it’s not clear how they’ve changed since then.
While there are assistance programs out there, navigating those systems is often easier said than done.
"One of the biggest barriers is just being able to get in for an appointment, Molly Black, community navigation trainer and coach for United Way of Greater Cleveland’s 211 helpline, told us. "As you can imagine, especially right now, there's just a whole lot of need."
In April, the 211 helpline received 1,000 calls for assistance with gas, electric or water bills. By September, those calls had more than doubled.
"You’ve got thousands of people that are calling the same number at the same time to get an appointment scheduled, and there are only a limited number of appointments available," Black explained.
Over in Lorain County, community service advocates are reporting the same struggles, especially from people who are new to the system.
"Demand this time of year is always high, but this year, it is just like nothing we've ever seen before," Jackie Boehnlein, CEO of the Lorain County Community Action Agency, said.
Bottom line, this is a confusing system that requires patience and persistence.
That’s why the Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative created this guide that outlines specific programs and payments plans that are available for you. Read more below:
This story is sponsored by the Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative, which is composed of 20-plus Northeast Ohio news outlets including WKYC 3News. Reporters Rachel Dissell and Conor Morris contributed to this story.