Cleveland resident Vera English said she was worried she might have to move out of the home she’s lived in for 24 years when the furnace failed in early March.
“Just a regular day and it got cold, just got really, really cold in the house,” the 65-year-old Collinwood resident said. “At first I was thinking maybe it’s just the pilot light. I had no idea how to light it because I know I’ve had people come out and light it before.”
English said she relies on the assistance of friends and neighbors in situations like these because she has a disability, lives on a fixed income, and isn’t able to depend on her two sons because of their own disabilities. One of her two boys is nonverbal, while the other is unable to walk or talk, she continued.
One of English’s neighbors offered a hand, driving to the store to purchase parts to repair the pilot light, but when that didn’t work, she said she turned to local housing nonprofit Community Housing Solutions (CHS) for assistance. Within two weeks, a local contractor came and replaced the heating system.
English said she knew of CHS because, in 2016, it helped her purchase a new hot water tank for the house she’s lived in since 1997. She was able to reach CHS again in March by calling United Way of Greater Cleveland’s 2-1-1 Help Center.
How Ohio helps pay the bills
The goal of Community Housing Solutions is to help connect Cuyahoga County residents, like English, who need structural repairs with local certified contractors that can do the work using state, county and city grant dollars. The organization doesn’t do cosmetic work like painting; instead, its repairs are focused on mechanical systems that affect residents’ health and safety, like heating and air conditioning systems or hot water tanks.
“So we can do the kinds of repairs that are necessary to allow people to remain in their properties,” Andy Nikiforovs, the group’s executive director, explained. “Much of it is quality of life stuff.”
Nikiforovs said this year’s budget for the home repair program is between $4 and $5 million.
Though that number may sound high, the director is quick to point out that those funds tend to go quick when it comes to home repairs, and CHS is just one organization. For every person helped, there are many more who need assistance. The need became evident in February, when a press release from the Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner’s Office stated seven people had died in homes that lacked heating.
At the time, the office issued a public health warning, explaining that the period was the most deadly two weeks in terms of winter weather that the county’s seen since 2009. According to a county official, six of those deaths are especially notable because they took place indoors, in environments where heating systems weren’t working or where heating wasn’t even available.
“People have lost their lives. That’s very important,” Christopher Harris, the external affairs manager at the medical examiner’s office, told The Land in February. “We want to make sure we take this seriously and people are informed of the dangers the cold weather can cause.”
CHS helps 800 such households per year, Nikiforovs added, with between 80 and 85% of those homes’ occupants consisting of senior citizens who live on fixed or low incomes, like English. There are no specific income requirements; if CHS or the organization that refers a resident to it deems a homeowner to be in trouble, the organization will help.
Unfortunately, Nikiforovs continued, situations like English’s aren’t all that uncommon, and can often be worse if neighbors aren’t present.
“We have seniors who don’t have a working furnace so they have a space heater in the living room and that is where they live, it’s the only room that has some heat,” he said.
English said her issues are compounded by the fact that she, like many people her age, is on a fixed income of about $20,000 per year, which makes it difficult for her to foot the bill for unexpected repairs in addition to paying for medical expenses and groceries.
The Feb. 17 press release came with a public health warning and a list of resources available to Cuyahoga County residents struggling to stay warm, but CHS wasn’t on there because it only takes referrals from other agencies. One reason for that is because the nonprofit relies on dollars from various sources to administer programming, meaning people can only access its services by first going through an external agency.
“We try not to promote the program, because if there was a story that said ‘Call CHS for home repairs and it’s free of charge and et cetera,’ we would be inundated with calls and have a five-year waiting list,” Nikiforovs said. “At any given time we’ll have 15-20 clients who are waiting for service and by the time we get to those we’ll have another five.”
Being able to fix 800 homes with an operating budget in the millions might sound sustainable, but Nikiforovs said CHS would help five times the amount of Cuyahoga County residents if they had enough resources to do so.
“To have this incredibly dedicated staff and contractors who understand what we do, why we do it and have been working with us for many years, it really often boils down to the dollars we have available,” he said. “Whereas $4 or $5 million sounds like a lot of money, and is a lot of money, it’s not really what’s necessary. I worry about the people we don’t reach.”
If CHS hadn’t been able to assist English, the $4,000 or $5,000 price of a new furnace would probably have forced her to find somewhere else to live, the last thing she said she would have wanted to do after working hard to pay off the home herself.
In addition to home repair offerings, CHS also offers a Family Stability Initiative Program to help keep children within their school districts when parents experience housing woes and a home energy conservation initiative to make existing domiciles more efficient. Through a separate program, the organization has funded more than 300 new, affordable housing constructions in and around East Cleveland since 1995.
Other local resources mentioned in the county’s health warning press release include the Home Energy Assistance Program (HEAP), a state-funded, one-time payment to help residents over 60, or aged 18-59 with a disability, pay their heating and cooling bills.
HEAP is planned and funded at the state level, then administered by local community action agencies such as Step Forward (formerly the Council for Economic Opportunities in Greater Cleveland) and fellow area housing nonprofit CHN Housing Partners.
These agencies also offer the Percentage of Income Payment Plan (PIPP), which presents county residents with a year-round solution that reduces utility costs to a fraction of their total income.
Ohio residents who are interested in applying for HEAP have until the end of May to do so by following this link to the Ohio Development Services Agency’s website and creating an account.
Nikiforovs said programs like HEAP, PIPP and the ones CHS offers are necessary to ensure all Cleveland residents have access to decent living situations that they couldn’t otherwise afford.
“They could end up on the street, they could end up being with friends and relatives, and I can tell you some of these stories of people who just struggle,” he said. “So what we pride ourselves on is not only can we make the house safe and more inhabitable, but we do improve the quality of life for the people who live there.”
Collin Cunningham is a freelance journalist who lives in Tremont.
This story is sponsored by the Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative, which is composed of 20-plus Northeast Ohio news outlets including The Land.
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