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In-Depth: United Way prepares for spike in calls after utility shutoff moratorium ends

Posted at 4:58 PM, Nov 30, 2020
and last updated 2020-11-30 18:15:49-05

CLEVELAND — Some of the last moratoriums on utility disconnections will expire Tuesday for customers of Cleveland Water and Cleveland Public Power. With the pandemic still raging and the coldest months of the season approaching, local agencies and non-profits are preparing for a spike in need and assistance.

Through November 25, the United Way of Greater Cleveland had received more than 130,000 calls or chats for service into its 211 HelpLink system. The second most common reason people have called is concerns about utility-related issues. Molly Black expects that fact to be even more pronounced in the coming days and weeks.

"With the moratorium ending for Cleveland Water and [Cleveland Public Power] we do expect there is going to be a big increase in the number of utility calls that we have been having," Black said. "One of the things that we hear from a lot of our clients is how difficult it can be to reach some of these programs just because of the sheer number of folks that are reaching out for assistance."

In October, the City of Cleveland announced it would be letting the moratorium on utility disconnects pass on Dec. 1. The moratorium had been in effect since mid-March. Many other investors-owned public utilities began letting their moratoriums expire in the summer and fall.

The city's utilities held off as long as they could, director Robert Davis told City Council in mid-November.

"The decision to resume the collection and severing process was done with great concern and awareness of the financial difficulties and vulnerabilities that many families are facing due to the pandemic," Davis said.

When it comes to figuring out which programs a particular customer qualifies for, Black said the best first step is to call 211 where a United Way 'navigator' will ask a series of questions.

"They shouldn't expect to call and just get a list of numbers. When they call 211, they are going to have a conversation with that 211 navigators who is going to ask them some questions to help narrow down which programs are going to be the best fit for that family or individual," Black said. "Sometimes folks are just so overwhelmed with the situation that they are in, especially if this is the first time in their life if they have ever had to reach out for help from anybody."

Among the different programs that are offering assistance is CARES Act funding that is being administered through CHN Housing Partners and the Council for Economic Opportunities in Greater Cleveland. There is also assistance available through the Home Energy Assistance Program (HEAP) and Percentage Income Payment Plan (PIPP) program.

Similar to the onslaught of calls related to unemployment assistance in March, April, June, and onward, Black said people will need to remain patient.

"We are going to reassure them and tell them to keep trying because there is help available," Black said. "There are appointments. They are seeing people. Sometimes it just takes a little bit longer than you would like in order to get seen by one of these agencies."