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Keep the lights on: Northeast Ohioans face utility shutoffs, a hardship exacerbated by the 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

CLEVELAND — Gwendolyn Garth wears many hats: artist, activist, and one of millions of Americans struggling to make ends meet in the wake of COVID-19.

“Is it a constant struggle?” asked 3News reporter Rachel Polansky.

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

While the 69-year-old Cleveland resident 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.

“They automatically put you on a payment plus plan which is like a third of your original bill. For me, it was $900 and something dollars,” said Garth.

“It was $900 and something a month?” Polansky asked.

“Yeah and at that moment I felt sheer defeat,” said Garth.

Garth lives on $444 dollars from Social Security each month, plus whatever she can make from her artwork.

RELATED: Keep the lights on: 3News launches new campaign to raise money for those facing utility shutoffs

Her utilities have been disconnected in the past. Right now, she's getting by.

Credit: WKYC
Gwendolyn Garth

But as with any climb out of debt, she has a long road ahead.

“I will not be in the dark again, metaphorically and literally. If any utility has to go, it'll be the gas,” said Garth.

Garth is far from alone.

“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.

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, on behalf of applicants. Still, the need for help far outweighs the available funding.

That’s part of the reason WKYC Studios and CHN Housing Partners launched our ‘Keep the Lights On CLE’ campaign, an effort to raise money for those in our community facing utility shutoffs.

While the campaign won’t cure the root issues of the crisis, the hope is to provide some temporary relief to those in need.

“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.”

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

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.

“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.

Credit: WKYC
Keep The Lights On Campaign

You can head to www.KeepTheLightsOnCLE.org to donate. Every nickel we raise will go toward Northeast Ohioans facing utility shutoffs.

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 born out of a WKYC Studios report with Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative.


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 ends on March 22nd.

Q: Where can I donate?

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

Editor's note: the video in the player below is from a story published on Feb. 22, 2021.

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