Utilities for All holds vigil at City Hall to remember those who died due to utility shutoffs
by Bruce Checefsky
(Plain Press, October 2021) Seven deaths from hypothermia were reported during a single month earlier this year after utility companies shut heat off in the middle of the winter to customers unable to pay their bills. The actual number of deaths is likely much higher. Some customers were forced to use ovens for heat or start fires in their homes to keep warm. In one tragic instance, a man slept in his car while it was running to keep from freezing to death. He was found dead the next morning from asphyxiation.
Utilities for All held a vigil on August 31st at Cleveland City Hall to commemorate their lives. Larry Bresler, director of Organize Ohio and a member of Utilities 4 All, spoke to a crowd in front of the Free Stamp sculpture in adjacent Willard Park.
“While the City of Cleveland did have a moratorium on utility shutoff during the pandemic that policy is expected to expire making residents more vulnerable than ever,” said Bressler. “We believe utilities are a human right as much as housing and health care. We denounce the utility companies’ decision to put profit over people.”
Utilities in 10 states have reported at least 765,262 household power shutoffs since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic according to the Center for Biological Diversity. American Electric Power (AEP) Ohio disconnected customers for nonpayment at 95 disconnections per 1,000 customers, far higher than the state’s other big electric utilities. It is often illegal for utility companies to shut off its services, especially during months with extreme weather.
According to the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO), electric companies may not charge customers a deposit of more than 130 percent of the estimated average monthly bill for regulated services. If a customer fails to pay the electric bill by the due date, the company must send a 14-day notice before disconnecting the service. An exception to this rule is if an individual has a medical condition where the disconnection of electric service would be dangerous to health; these customers may qualify for a medical certification which would retain service for 30 days. However, medical certificates may only be used three times per household in a 12-month period.
Don Bryant, a retired letter carrier and longtime advocate and founder of the Greater Cleveland Immigrants Support Network formed in 2003 to work for an equitable immigration policy and promoting inter-cultural awareness and appreciation, said that people dying from hypothermia was unacceptable.
“It is not acceptable that someone must use their oven or space heater for heat or start a fire in their home to keep warm in the winter,” Bryant said.
He proceeded to read the names of the victims and describe their death, using first names to protect the families.
“Robert A, 84, found dead from hypothermia on February 1, 2021, on the rear patio of a neighbor’s home. John D., 71, found dead by his brother Carl from hypothermia. George B, 84, discovered in his home by his great nephew and died from environmental hypothermia. Josephine S, 90, started a fire in her house to keep warm. She died in the fire. Michael H. died from asphyxiation while trying to stay warm in his car because his gas was shut-off in his apartment.”
“People need to keep an eye on their neighbors,” he added.
Joseph Patrick Meissner, a Vietnam veteran, and retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, spent 46 years as a Legal Aid lawyer in Cleveland working with people on utility issues, among other social causes, reminded people that electricity must be in good supply. Diversity of sources including wind and solar, fossil fuel, and nuclear plants supply the base load, he said.
Conservation of resources and economy of energy is a necessity, he noted.
“How to we keep from turning over a massive amount of debt to our children and grandchildren when it comes to supplying utilities in today’s market?” asked Meissner.
Air-conditioning presents a challenge for the future as temperatures continue to rise worldwide, Meissner continued, and it will take away much needed electricity for other aspects of lives.
Dena Magoulias, a family physician at The MetroHealth System and activist for Single-Payer Action Network Ohio (SPAN Ohio), a coalition of individuals and organizations working together to achieve fundamental reform of the health insurance system, spoke from a patient’s perspective. For every 40 years, Dr. Magoulias has worked in community health centers on the East side of Cleveland, where she’s witnessed firsthand people whose utilities were cutoff.
“I have patients that don’t have electricity. They don’t have a refrigerator for fresh food or a stove to cook on and eat out of cans,” she said. “I’ve seen people with their water turned off. I have people with essential medical equipment that need electricity to operate. People die without electricity. There’s no reason why our country can’t afford to make utilities free for all.”
Jonathan Harris, known as “Two Braids,” formerly homeless and an active outreach worker for the Northeast Ohio Homeless Coalition, encouraged the crowd to chant, ‘no utility shutoffs, no utility shutoffs, no utility shutoffs’ before citing a passage from the Bible.
“Matthew 25:35, For I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink; I was a stranger and you invited me in; I needed clothes and you clothed me; I was sick, and you looked after me; I was in prison, and you came to visit me. Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
“Organizing, advocacy, and education can make a difference. No one should freeze to death in the greatest country in the world,” said Two Braids.
Resources are available for qualifying residents. The Percentage of Income Payment Plan Plus (PIPP Plus) offers year-round assistance. To qualify for this special payment plan,
developed by the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, a customer’s yearly gross household
income can be up to 150 percent of federal poverty guidelines. Under PIPP Plus, participating customers may maintain their natural gas service by paying 6 percent of their total gross monthly household income, or $10, whichever is greater.
The PIPP Plus maximum yearly household gross income levels for the 2020-2021
program year are: $19,140 for one person; $25,860 for two people; $32,580 for three; $39,300 for four; $46,020 for five; $52,740 for six; $59,460 for seven; and $66,180 for eight. Add $6,720 for each additional person.
Cleveland Public Power customers who have outstanding account balances or are having trouble making bill payments should contact CPP at 216-664-4600. Other assistance programs, including COVID-19 relief funds, are available to eligible customers through the CHN Housing Partners (216-774-2349) and Step Forward (216-696-9077). This information can also be found on the CPP website www.cpp.org/Assistance-programs.
Dominion Energy Payment Plans offers both short-term payment extensions and
long-term payment plans to help residential and commercial customers manage their balances and catch up over time. Customers may qualify for one of several Dominion Energy or State of Ohio programs. Dominion offerings include: Budget Billing, which allows customers to pay a fixed budget amount each month based on annual gas usage; and Budget Plus which offers additional flexibility for customers who enroll in our Budget Plus payment plan. Under Budget Plus, customers pay their budget payment, plus an amount against their past-due balance over a maximum of 12 months. Another Dominion plan called Current-Plus Plan allows customers with a past-due balance to pay their current monthly bill, plus an installment of the total account balance at the time they enroll in the plan that spreads the balance over multiple months. A Dominion plan, called The One-Ninth Plan, allows customers to pay one-ninth of their total account balance each month plus a calculated budget amount.
As night fell, Charlie Mosbrook, an award-winning songwriter, performer, and advocate for American folk music, tuned his guitar in front of a microphone. “I wrote this song a few years ago for everybody standing up for themselves and their basic right to live,” he said. “It’s called Remember Who We Are.”
Remember who we are…
We are scientists and teachers
Reporters on TV, Investigators, lawyers
The facts are plain to see
The evidence is obvious
Don’t look the other way
We will come from near and far
Remember who we are…