Emergency Winter Heating Programs See Uptick in Demand

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As the mercury drops, thousands of Cuyahoga County residents are applying for help under the Home Energy Assistance Program (HEAP). The federally-funded program helps low-income residents with their winter heating costs. And groups that administer the benefit locally say they're seeing an increased demand for it.

"We try to figure out how to accommodate them, but we have to kind of triage them," said Jeanne Morton, Director of Community Resources* at CHN Housing Partners, one of two community development nonprofits that help connect residents with HEAP assistance. Requests for the emergency service are up about 20 percent compared to this time last year, she said.

In recent weeks, she and her small staff have been getting over two hundred calls a day from residents worried about having their heat shut-off—and some who already have. And although their appointment calendar is booked for the next month, Morton said she still makes room for the most urgent cases. 

"I have a really bad reputation in my office for squeezing people in," said Morton, whose organization is not the only one experiencing increased requests for HEAP.

'There does seem to be an influx of customers," said Doug Bennett, Vice President of External Affairs for the Council for Economic Opportunities in Greater Cleveland (CEOGC). "In the past couple of weeks, it's really gotten pretty cold, so I think that caused a lot of more people to seek our services."

The organization has seen nearly 4,000 individuals since early November, Bennett said, which is slightly more than the number it served this time last year. If the coming weeks are as freezing as the last, they'll likely see thousands more, he said.

According to estimates provided by CHN Housing Partners and CEOGC, over 20,000 individuals in Cuyahoga County obtained HEAP assistance last winter. While budgets for the programs vary widely by location, the seasonal budget allocated by Ohio's Development Services Agency to CEOGC for financial assistance payments is around $2 million, Bennett said.

Although funds for HEAP come from the federal government, it is the state government that distributes HEAP payments to utility providers, and local agencies that administer the program at the county-level by screening applications.

Individuals seeking HEAP assistance must typically apply in person, bringing with them several documents including recent utility bills, proof of household income, proof of U.S. residency, and more. To qualify for assitance, a person's household income must be within 175 percent of the federal poverty level. 

For those who get approved, the state makes a one-time payment to their utility provider, with the maximum payment varying depending on whether the utility is regulated by the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO). For PUCO-regulated utilities such as FirstEnergy, the maximum payment is $175. For customers of Cleveland Public Power, which is municipally-owned, payments can be up to $500.

For individuals who exceed the income threshold for HEAP assistance, other programs are available. For example, the Winter Reconnection Order, issued by PUCO, allows residents, regardless of income, to avoid a shutoff or restore service by paying $175. Alternatively, the Percentage of Income Payment Program Plus helps lower-income households maintain gas and electric service by paying a percentage of their household income instead of their actual energy bills.

*Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled the first name of CHN Housing Partner's Director of Community Resources. Her name is Jeanne Morton, not "Jeannie."

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