Ms. Smith, 70, lives in Southeast Pennsylvania with her grandson, who helps her pay the bills.
Ms. Hernandez, also of Southeast Pennsylvania, has been trying to rebuild her life and the lives of her two children after leaving her abusive husband.
In early March, when the COVID-19 pandemic struck, both Ms. Smith's grandson and Ms. Hernandez lost their jobs. Suddenly, these families couldn't afford their utility bills; Ms. Smith had a mounting utility debt, and Ms. Hernandez was worried that her family's fresh start was in jeopardy. They needed help.
Both families were connected with Philadelphia's Community Legal Services (CLS), a legal services organization that represents low-income Philadelphians in a variety of matters, from public benefits issues to employment to housing. CLS also provides information on clients' rights and engages in advocacy to address challenges that its clients face.
"We see a variety of people who are facing challenges – our clients include people who were working and have lost their job and all of the sudden have bills to pay but have no income coming in. We see people who are low-wage workers who are still working but their jobs don't pay enough to meet these high utility bills," said Lydia Gottesfeld, supervising attorney for CLS. "We get clients referred to us who are at their health center who say to their doctor, 'I'm worried my medication won't be able to stay cold because I'm going to lose access to my utilities.'"
These stories are not unique. The COVID-19 public-health crisis continues to create difficult economic situations for families across Pennsylvania. The uncertain times have led to Pennsylvanians being unable to afford essential needs like home energy bills.
CLS helped Ms. Smith and Ms. Hernandez reach out to the Department of Human Services (DHS), which connects eligible Pennsylvanians directly to resources that everyone needs to survive: food, healthcare, and energy to make a home habitable. DHS administers safety-net programs that are designed to support families across the commonwealth and help them get through times like these. These programs are needed for many in the best of economic times, and because of COVID-19, they are essential for people like Ms. Smith and Ms. Hernandez.
One of those programs is the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP).
"Utilities are unaffordable for low-income folks in Pennsylvania; they can cost folks as much as 16-17 percent of their income. To put that in perspective, a non low-income person typically pays 4 percent of their income," said Gottesfeld. "LIHEAP is the one chance low-income households get to catch up on their utility bills."
Traditional LIHEAP normally runs from November through April and provides assistance for home energy bills, ensuring continuity of utility and other energy services for low-income Pennsylvanians. To help families get through the COVID-19 pandemic and economic downturn, DHS launched the LIHEAP Crisis Recovery Program in May. The program runs through August 31, 2020, and applications are still being accepted.
LIHEAP Recovery Crisis benefits may be available if a household:
- Has their main or secondary energy source completely shut-off;
- Is notified that their utility service will be shut off in the next 60 days;
- Has broken energy equipment or leaking lines that must be fixed or replaced;
- Is in danger of being without fuel in 15 days or less; or,
- Owes funds to a utility provider that would constitute a service termination if not for the Public Utility Commission's moratorium on terminations.
"LIHEAP Recovery Crisis has been a critical program during the pandemic as people have lost their jobs and been unable to work due to health issues or safety concerns," said Gottesfeld. "As more people have become low-income than ever before, LIHEAP Recovery Crisis provides utility assistance to folks so they can have a little bit of help paying for critical utility bills."
Once an application for LIHEAP Crisis Recovery is approved, DHS will work with utility companies and deliverable fuel vendors to help Pennsylvanians pay utility bills and maintain access to home energy services.
Thanks to the LIHEAP Recovery Crisis Program, Ms. Smith received a $530 grant and was able to catch up on her PECO bill. The Hernandez family was able to afford their utilities and weathered a three-month period with no income due to COVID-19.
The LIHEAP Recovery Crisis Program exists to make our most difficult times a little bit easier, so no one has to go through the weeks and months ahead alone. Nobody should feel ashamed or stigmatized for applying for a public-assistance program during a time of crisis. Applying is an act of advocacy for yourself and your family.
"There's no shame in obtaining these benefits. It's really important that people don't give up because, especially if you're trying to access public benefits or other services for the first time or you're not familiar with the process, it can be hard and new for people. Especially during the pandemic," reminded Gottesfeld. "Just because someone hits a wall doesn't mean they're not eligible for the benefit, or just because they've been denied before doesn't mean they're not eligible for the benefit. That's where groups like Community Legal Services and legal service organizations across the state can help."
LIHEAP Recovery Crisis was available to Ms. Smith and Ms. Hernandez, and it may be available to you, too. DHS is accepting LIHEAP Recovery Crisis applications through August 31, 2020. To apply, visit the COMPASS website or request a paper application by calling 1-877-395-8930. Paper applications can be mailed to the County Assistance Office. You do not need to know your eligibility for a program to apply for it.
More information on the LIHEAP Recovery Crisis Program can be found here. Information on local community legal services can be found here.
*Names have been changed to protect client anonymity.