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Keep the lights on: Coping with mounting utility bills amid a pandemic

'Keep the Lights on CLE’ is a campaign to raise money for those in our community facing utility shutoffs. To donate, visit www.KeepTheLightsOnCLE.org

LAKEWOOD, Ohio — Last week, our nation saw the harsh impact when millions of Texans were cut off from the electrical grid.

Closer to home, it's a deadly threat as our most vulnerable neighbors cope with mounting utility bills.

It's exactly why WKYC Studios unveiled our ‘Keep the Lights On CLE’ campaign.

WKYC Studios is working with Cleveland nonprofit, CHN Housing Partners, to raise money for those in our community facing utility shutoffs.

Spearheading this effort is 3News Investigator Rachel Polansky who has met with several residents living every day under the threat of mounting utility bills and shutoffs.

Jennifer's Story:

“What is it like getting a shutoff notice?” Polansky asked Jennifer Toth, a Lakewood resident.

“It’s pretty much the death of your dignity,” said Toth.

Disabled with Lupus for 16 years, Toth’s social security income is fixed. Her days of worry are not.

“I wake up every day thinking, is this the day that the worst could happen?” asked Toth.

Credit: WKYC
Jennifer Toth

CHN Housing Partners, a nonprofit agency involved in administering assistance to Cuyahoga County residents, tells 3News Investigates that 14,700 Northeast Ohioans have applied for assistance since the start of the pandemic.

Applicants tell CHN that they have lost more than $215 million in total income loss. That comes out to a roughly $21,000 income loss per person.

The majority of applicants reported job loss or reduced hours due to COVID-19. The majority of applicants were also African American.

While CHN has given out $12 million to 5,500 of those applicants, the need for help far out-weighs the available funding.

“We're seeing an unprecedented need during this crisis, and it's a different need than what we've seen before because of all the job loss people have had,” said Kevin Nowak, executive director of CHN Housing Partners.

Nowak said this crisis is not just affecting low income families – but also those who have never applied for assistance before.

“We’re seeing first time applicants,” said Nowak. “The restaurant worker at your favorite restaurant where the restaurant closed or had reduced hours. The service worker, or healthcare worker, that single mom who needed to take time off to take care of their children because their children weren't in school because the schools were closed. That all results in people not being able to pay their bills and not being able to keep their lights on.”

Some people may not qualify for assistance because their income is not below a certain percent of the federal poverty guidelines.

Others may not qualify because they haven't been unemployed long enough.

Toth currently owes $2,200 to First Energy.

“You feel like there’s nowhere to turn,” said Toth.

People like Toth are part of the reason WKYC Studios and CHN launched ‘Keep the Lights On CLE.’

“It provides flexibility for us to address more need. We only have a certain pot of dollars provided by the government. Those dollars are not as flexible as many people will need and they don't cover your entire viewing area. So what this [Keep the Lights On CLE] allows us to do, is fill the gaps within the system,” said Nowak.

To donate, visit www.KeepTheLightsOnCLE.org . Every nickel raised will go toward Northeast Ohioans facing utility shutoffs. These donations are tax deductible.

Of course, this campaign will not solve the utility crisis. Our hope is to bring some short-term relief for those who really need it.

This campaign was borne out of a WKYC Studios collaboration with Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative.

Credit: WKYC
Keep The Lights On Campaign

FAQs:

Q: How will people get the money that I’m donating?

A: The money will go directly to the utility provider -- not the person -- so you know your money is going to pay someone's utility bill.

Q: Who will get the money that I am donating?

A: Northeast Ohioans who cannot access other sources of assistance through existing programs. CHN Housing Partners will vet applicants, ensuring that only those truly in need are getting help.

Q: How long will the campaign last?

A: The month-long campaign ends on March 22.

Q: Where can I donate?

A: Go to www.KeepTheLightsOnCLE.org to make a tax-deductible donation.

More coverage:

Editor's Note: The below video aired on February 24, 2021