A prolonged cold snap has created a bottleneck across northeast Ohio for those seeking assistance with their heating bills.
The surge in demand has left people seeking appointments as part of the federal Home Energy Assistance Program (HEAP) hearing busy tones and waiting long lines at county offices.
HEAP is a nearly $4 billion program that funnels money from the federal government to the state level who in turn disburse the money to county community assistance agencies. While funding has remained relatively constant and flat, Frank Prihoda, the director of community services for the Lorain Co. Community Action Agency, said demand has only increased, especially this winter.
“Our winter crisis period began Nov. 1 and it goes through the end of March. At the beginning of November, it gets pretty crazy here,” Prihoda said.
It has been relentless, especially the past three weeks. This year, LCCAA will host approximately 15,000 appointments, which is roughly 60 appointments per day. LCCAA also has satellite offices in Elyria and Wellington.
“The financial budget we’re given is pretty much fixed. The state hasn’t scrimped on the payments to the utility companies. We did get some additional funding last year to open the Elyria office,” Prihoda said.
Dana Smith, a single mother who lives in Lorain, said she recently tried to set up an appointment to receive heating assistance. She called the appointment hotline only to hear a busy tone. She called back a few minutes later but the result was the same. She called again. And again. And again.
“l called back and it said, ‘there’s no appointments available at this time,’” Smith said. “I would call back on the next business day. That happened for six days in a row.”
On the seventh day, she finally secured an appointment for Jan. 11. While Smith was upset her appointment wouldn't be until mid-January, Prihoda said so long as the appointment is scheduled within a 30-day window, the utility company won’t disconnect service.
“I am a single mom so it's not easy for me to get up and go to a temp service and work a couple of days to make money for my heating bill,” Smith said. “I don’t have a babysitter or the gas money to get there. When I finally did get an appointment, it was a relief. At least I know my service won’t get shut off.”
Prihoda stressed the importance of potential applicants not skipping out on their appointments. Additionally, it’s important to have all of the necessary documentation before attending an appointment. If someone receives a shutoff notice from the utility company, they are given priority, Prihoda said.
“The easy answer is to keep trying. It's important to keep their appointment. If they think they’re approaching a crisis, walk-in times are available,” Prihoda said.