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$3,700.88. For months, that number has been ingrained in Carmen Delgado’s memory, right down to the penny.
It represents the seemingly insurmountable overdue balance on her utility bills, an arrearage that kept her, her husband and their daughter homeless for six months while they fretted over how they could pay it off, whether there were any monthly installments they could afford. Over the course of the couple’s first-ever encounter with the city’s shelter system (a motorcycle accident and a series of ailments had left them both broke and unable to work) they quickly learned that — because of their overdue utility bills — getting out of the shelter and into subsidized housing would be no simple matter.
It’s not an unusual situation, says John Rowe, executive director of the nonprofit Utility Emergency Services Fund (UESF), which offers last-resort grants to people facing utility shut-offs.
“There’s families that are in the shelter system for whom there’s a lot of reasons why they got there, but the thing that’s keeping them there right now is utility arrearages,” Rowe says. “The nonpayment of utilities, or the termination, sets off a chain reaction.” Once that chain reaction begins — because arrearages show up on credit reports, because many landlords require tenants to put utilities in their own name and because people with such issues are ineligible even to apply for many subsidized housing programs — it can be difficult to reverse.
Now, UESF and the city’s Office of Supportive Housing (OSH), which oversees homeless shelters, have launched a new collaborative effort to identify and assist those homeless families being held back by utility debts. For Delgado, one of the first to benefit from the pilot initiative, the impact was immediate and life-changing. Just over a month after she first visited UESF’s office this past November, she and her husband were finally able to move into a two-bedroom apartment in Northeast Philadelphia. “It’s better than being in a shelter, believe me. No one wants to be in that position, no one,” she says. “This [program] had a big impact on my life.”
Despite government initiatives like the Low-Income Heating Assistance Program, which provides cash assistance as well as crisis grants of up to $400, and utility companies’ often-lenient customer-assistance programs, each year thousands of low-income Philadelphians still end up choosing between paying for rent, utilities or food. The results of that trade-off can be disastrous.
In Pennsylvania, a winter moratorium on utility shut-offs means that the lowest-income residents won’t lose access to heat from Dec. 1 to March 31 (though that moratorium was rolled back by Act 201 of 2004, which allows Philadelphia Gas Works (PGW) to shut off customers with incomes as low as 150 percent of the federal poverty level, or $33,000 a year for a family of four.) But those whose utility service was already terminated before the moratorium began aren’t protected. According to the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission’s cold-weather survey, published in December, 7,742 PGW customers and 2,673 PECO customers are going without a central heating source this winter.
The UESF pilot program isn’t the city’s first attempt to chip away at those utility-shutoff figures, which are down slightly from last year but still represent a 13 percent increase over the average from 2007 to 2010. Philly nearly tripled its contributions to UESF starting in 2008, setting aside $1.525 million annually from its federal Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds to serve as last-resort grants to people facing termination. The utility providers match those grants, so the money stretches twice as far.
But over the past couple years, as Philly’s CDBG grant dwindled, so did utility assistance. In the city budget effective last July, UESF received $1.07 million, about two-thirds of which is dedicated to assisting PGW customers.
Within a few months of releasing the grant money last fall, UESF’s PECO grant funds were entirely depleted. By November, Rowe says, UESF was turning away an average of 300 applicants per week, either due to a lack of funds or because the applicant got help last year (UESF helps people only every two years). Others are turned away because their arrearages are so high that UESF can’t cover them.
Katrina Roebuck, director of Housing Prevention and Rapid Rehousing Programs at OSH, says moving people with utility arrearages out of shelters and into permanent housing has become a regular challenge. The city is trying to pick up where federal stimulus dollars targeted at rapid rehousing left off. The stimulus funding, which was sometimes used to square away utility arrearages, ran out last September. Since then, the city has attempted to address the issue by partnering with PGW and PECO to negotiate reducing clients’ debt and putting them on affordable payment plans.
Rowe notes that utility shut-offs have broad impacts: Lack of utilities is one reason that children are removed from households by the Department of Human Services. He’s trying to build partnerships with social-service agencies, to help parents caught up in the utility-termination cycle get the lights turned back on. Right now, though, even the partnerhip with OSH is still a learning process.
On a recent morning, Yasmine Grady stepped into UESF’s office wearing an expression of cautious optimism and clutching a sheaf of files pertaining to her monumental utility bills: $9,564 owed to PGW and $596 to PECO. Grady and two of her children had been staying in a city shelter since March. “The utility bills, that’s what’s been holding us back,” she says. She escaped a long-term abusive relationship and drug addiction when she went into the shelter system. She didn’t imagine it would be this difficult to get back out. Grady has been trying to make payments to PGW out of her $400 monthly welfare checks, but about half that income goes to shelter fees and the rest doesn’t last long.
“Especially when I first entered the shelter, I didn’t think we’d be there that long — until we found out the gas bill was stopping us.”
Rowe isn’t sure whether he can help Grady. UESF has money earmarked for the pilot program with the Office of Supportive Housing, but it is meant to help 75 to 100 families move out of homelessness in its first year. To meet that goal, it will need its funds to stretch: “Do we want to help one client for $10,000, or 10 clients for $1,000 each?” he says. “I don’t know the answer to that.”