Issues Cleveland Public Power customers face when applying for assistance to avoid shutoffs
by Delaney Jones & Jacie Jones
(Plain Press, December 2019) This article is the first in a series based on issues that came out of the Cleveland End Poverty Now Coalition’s October 17 public hearing about utility shutoffs through Cleveland Public Power (CPP). End Poverty Now is a coalition of 22 grassroots groups that work to address issues of poverty in Cleveland communities.
This first article focuses on the issues that customers face when applying to receive payment assistance when they cannot afford their bill. Issues to be addressed in future articles include: lack of due process before shutoffs, inability to make affordable payment plans, lack of notice about being shut off, electricity being turned off for people with medical issues, and an over 50% surcharge on customers’ bills called the “Energy Adjustment Charge”, the purpose of which has yet to be thoroughly explained by CPP.
While CPP states that assistance programs are available, these programs are often difficult to access, inadequate, or not available. The system of identifying where to receive assistance itself is difficult to navigate; much of the information is difficult to find.
A part of the HEAP program, the Home Energy Assistance winter crisis program (also known as Emergency HEAP), is a one-time benefit of up to $550 to be used in emergency situations where customers are faced with disconnection. When we contacted HEAP to see first-hand what it is like to try to apply for HEAP assistance, we found it almost impossible. Each of the many times that calls were made, the calls either failed, or we were directed to a voicemail stating that there are “currently no appointment slots”.
Catholic Charities, another source of assistance listed on CPP’s website, is also not a realistic source of assistance for customers. When we spoke to a Catholic Charities representative, it became clear that they rarely are able to provide the sort of assistance that CPP customers need to prevent shutoff. Though Catholic Charities does provide one-time emergency assistance capped at $250, this is rarely enough to pay the full amount that struggling CPP customers need to prevent shutoffs.
Other potential sources of assistance do exist: the office of Veterans Affairs does provide temporary assistance to Veterans specifically, and the Prevention, Retention and Contingency (PRC) program provides temporary assistance to families in poverty who have at least one dependent.
However, finding potential sources of assistance was a difficult process even for the two of us who spent hours researching, and who have easy access to phones and internet. For low income customers struggling to pay their bills, finding reliable assistance that they need to keep their power on seems unrealistic.
Even if customers were able to access funds through HEAP, Catholic Charities, or other sources, often the programs provide one-time assistance that in many cases does not even provide enough to prevent their disconnection in the first place.