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Keep the lights on: The need for utility assistance in Northeast Ohio far outweighs the available funding

‘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

CLEVELAND — There have been seven winter-related deaths this month in Cuyahoga County. The majority of these deaths involved older residents who died due to lack of heat, according to the Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner.

Thousands of our neighbors are in crisis this winter – struggling to pay their utility bills -- amid the ongoing pandemic. Available assistance is depleted, leaving many still in need of help.

To help fill the void, WKYC Studios came up with an idea to “keep the lights on” in our community.

Keep the Lights on CLE’ is a campaign between WKYC Studios and CHN Housing Partners to raise money for those in our community facing utility shutoffs.

To donate, visit www.KeepTheLightsOnCLE.org. Every nickel raised will go toward Northeast Ohioans facing utility shutoffs.

Leading 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.

“I’m like what am I gonna do, what am I gonna do? And there was nothing to be done,” said Gwendolyn Garth, a Cleveland resident.

While Garth has been able to get some help from PIPP and other government assistance programs, finances remain a major challenge.

Right now, she owes $8,000 in past-due gas and electric bills.

“Is it a constant struggle?” asked Polansky.

“Yes, yes it is. Like the guy that be juggling the bowling pins ya know, boy don’t miss one,” said Garth.

“What is your biggest fear?” Polansky asked Terrance Dewalt, a Cleveland resident and Army veteran.

“That I might freeze to death because they're gonna cut my power,” said Terrance Dewalt, as he flipped through electric, water and sewer bills. “What’s in my hand is bills that are surely getting ready to shut off."

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.

So far, CHN has made 5,500 payments to utility providers, totaling 12 million dollars, on behalf of applicants. Still, the need for help far outweighs 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.

People like Garth and Dewalt 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 donation 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.

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 campaign begins on February 22nd and ends on March 22nd.

Q: Where can I donate?

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

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