Every year, the Emergency Home Energy Assistance Program (EHEAP) helps thousands of residents in Ohio and nationwide avoid a utility disconnect or a heating fuel shortage by providing them with a one-time credit to their utility bill, or by resupplying them with heating fuel such as kerosene, wood pellets, or propane. GLCAP’s utility assistance staff helped nearly 1,500 people in Wood, Sandusky, Ottawa and Seneca County during the 2019-2020 winter season with help through the EHEAP.
Though everyone who seeks assistance through EHEAP needs the same kind of help, each person has different reasons for seeking assistance. Lee Guardiola, who at the time worked as the newly created position of energy assistance coach, saw many people when conducting outreach at group meetings and other events throughout the region to help promote utility assistance programs. During one outreach session at Clyde Food Bank, Lee met a man who had moved from Texas to Ohio for a job, and found the job was no longer available when he arrived. The man was grateful to learn about EHEAP and other utility assistance programs that could help.
“He thanked me for being there at the food bank because he was not sure how he was going to pay his bills, and was happy with any type of assistance he and his family could get,” Lee said.
During the intake process for EHEAP, staff may find that some clients’ needs are more complex and require more coordination with outside organizations to ensure that clients receive the assistance that will best meet their needs.
“Every day we are able to help someone is always a good day,” said Stephanie Gregg, intake worker. “Just like any other intake worker, I have had my fair share of good and bad experiences working in the field. We all have at least one specific client or moment that reminds us those long, frustrating days are worth every second.”
Stephanie recalled working with an elderly couple that had initially come in for EHEAP assistance, but was also set up with a Percentage of Income Payment Plan (PIPP) Plus plan to help make their utility payments manageable throughout the year. While the couple was over the 150 percent federal poverty income guideline to be on a PIPP Plus plan, they were considered eligible once Stephanie factored in allowable deductions for supplemental insurance. Stephanie was also able to connect with the Salvation Army of Bowling Green, which paid the couple’s remaining default on their previous utility payment plan, so that the debt did not carry over to their new plan.
“I remember the client leaving their next appointment in tears and telling me that no one had ever tried so hard to see that they were taken care of,” Stephanie said.
Utility assistance staff also recognize that a person who is afraid having utilities shut off can often be in a state of panic. Unfortunately, this can make a person vulnerable to others who want to take advantage of their situation by attempting to gain access to personal information or extort payments. This season, GLCAP Basic Needs Advocate Cortney Sturgill spoke with an 80-year-old woman who called GLCAP and was frantic because she had received a call from someone who threatened to turn off her electricity. The client was on a monthly payment plan through PIPP Plus, and was confused because she had always made regular payments. Cortney checked with the woman’s utility provider and verified that the client was not in disconnect, and that whomever had called was not a representative of their utility company.
“Out of fear of freezing to death, she almost gave the caller her checking account information to take money to pay her bill,” Cortney said. “After checking with her utility company, I called her back and talked her down to let her know that she wasn’t in disconnect. I also let her know she should always hang up if someone starts asking for payment over the phone, and to call me and I will get her the information she needs.”
While all people who need help through EHEAP have different backgrounds, many come in feeling somewhat apprehensive about asking for help said Destinee Chapa, an intake worker who is relatively new to GLCAP.
“Many times people come in and they all say the same phrase — ‘I’ve never had to ask for help before,’” Destinee said.
Destinee said she would always reassure clients that there is no shame in asking for help.
“I always try to explain to them, ‘That is what we are here for.’ Reaching out for help or needing help should not be associated with a negative stigma or shame. Things happen, life happens, and most importantly, it could happen to anyone.”