Problems with government assistance program, News 5 investigation sparks changes

Posted at 12:08 AM, Nov 01, 2016
and last updated 2016-11-01 19:30:58-04
Update: 11/01/2016 - New video with reaction to our investigation
Imagine not having enough money to pay your utility bills. You're in such bad shape you qualify for assistance but can't get help.
The Federal Home Energy Assistance Program, also known as HEAP, sends money to states and then it's filtered to county-level agencies. Our On Your Side Investigators tested local problems with HEAP and found people who were frustrated with the program.
Mark Anderson is from Akron, disabled and on a fixed income. He qualifies to receive help with his gas and electric bills. "The program… it actually, helps me immensely,” he said. “So, if I lose this program, I'm going to be in a world of hurt."
Anderson is on energy assistance through Akron Summit Community Action, Inc. Recently he was looking to renew his application. “It should be simple,” Anderson said.
The problem was when he kept calling for weeks to renew he got recorded messages saying “...all of our operators are busy. Please, try your call again later," or he just got a busy signal on the phone.
Anderson called us for help, and after we tried to get through to reps at Akron Summit, we went to its corporate office. "They're referring people to the appointment line," said the receptionist.
We then went to Akron Summit's appointment and program offices.
"You have to call and make an appointment through the appointment line,” said the receptionist there.  We told her when we call, it’s always busy.  Her response? “Yeah, I know."
She knows. The woman, herself, even tried calling the line while we were there in the lobby. She held out the phone and we heard the recording: “I'm sorry, all of our appointments...”
She then acknowledged that “…it's just going to say ‘sorry, all of our appointments are taken.’" We then asked if this is a common problem. “Well, everybody is getting (pause)… they having problems,” said the receptionist.
HEAP is only designed to do good things, but during our investigation, good luck finding someone to talk to about it. In fact, we documented those very problems for an entire week. We called during suggested times Monday through Friday at various hours of the day.  All we got were busy signals or, at one point, we heard an interesting message.
“The system is down for a scheduled maintenance. Please, try your call again later." A scheduled maintenance when people are supposed to be trying to get help.
"Our system covers it quite well I think,” said HEAP Coordinator for Akron Summit Deloris Henderson. She's been with Akron-Summit more than 30 years. “Our suggestion is to keep calling,” she said.
We asked about the scheduled maintenance during the suggested call times and could that maintenance work be done after the times that people are trying to get through. “We don't do that,” said Henderson. We asked why? “That is a service that is, uh...” We interrupted saying, “You can see where that would be frustrating for somebody who's calling at the time that you're telling them to call and there's a scheduled maintenance.” She then said, “That's understandable."
Henderson told us the agency helps more than 10,000 people in the county and there are only so many appointments within the timeframe for the program. She told me there are too many people calling who don't qualify and the public needs to be educated.
She said those who go through the program know the problems of getting through.
We asked, “And that’s just the way it is?” She said, "Kinda sorta."
Meanwhile, Elizabeth Perisutti is proof that Akron-Summit isn't the only place having issues with HEAP. She lives in Cuyahoga County. "They make it impossible and this is just terrible,” she told us. “No matter what time you call. And I even put in different zip codes to see if there was a difference than mine and it's the same thing."
She called us because she said she had been homeless for 4 years, finally saved up enough to rent a home, and has grandchildren living with her now. "I feel like crying to be honest with you because it hurts so bad."
After our phone calls to the Cuyahoga County-based agency Council for Economic Opportunities in Greater Cleveland, Perisutti finally has the help with her utility bills.
Meanwhile, in Akron, after calling News 5 and his city councilwoman  Margo Sommerville going to bat for him, Anderson has been renewed on the program. He worries, though, about the thousands of people that will try to get through for the Winter Crisis program. “I think (the process is) broken,” said Anderson.
We asked Henderson if there are any areas where she could see improvements are needed. “Our agency does a great job, I think,” she said. “Improvement? I can't really say at this time."
Despite Henderson’s confidence, our investigation is sparking action. Take a look at the following responses we received from government agencies involved with Ohio’s HEAP program: