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Published: Thursday, 12/11/2008

Utility customers facing shut-off encounter obstacles to get help

BY KATE GIAMMARISE
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Linda Worden is at her wits' end.

Facing potential shutoff of her electric and gas utilities, the 59-year-old Toledo woman has been trying to sign up for emergency heating assistance - which for many in Lucas County has become a frustrating combination of standing outside in the cold for hours and an endless succession of phone calls.

Ms. Worden was one of a dozen people lined up at 6:30 a.m. outside the Economic Opportunity Planning Association of Greater Toledo office at 505 Hamilton St. yesterday.

The office is where people apply for the federal emergency Home Energy Assistance Program.

"I have been trying [to get help] for four days," she said. "When you call to make an appointment, they say they've all been filled."

Some of those lined up yesterday said they had gotten there as early as 2 a.m. One woman was huddled under a blanket and another carried an oxygen tank. The temperature between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m. yesterday was between 30 and 32 degrees, according to the National Weather Service.

"It wouldn't be so bad [to stand in line] if there was someplace you could wait, a place to cover you up out of the weather," said Darrell Cole, who was in line.

The agency only sees seven "walk-ins" without an appointment per day; those in line had gotten there early in hopes of securing one of the seven spots.

Darrell Cole of East Toledo said the wait outside for energy aid wouldn t be bad if there were some protection from the weather. Darrell Cole of East Toledo said the wait outside for energy aid wouldn t be bad if there were some protection from the weather.
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"Last time I came, I was the eighth person, and they closed the door," said Anita Perry, a Toledo mother of two waiting in line at 6:30 a.m.

James Powell, EOPA's interim executive director, said the agency is doing its best but is limited by its budget. He said its six intake workers see at least 80 to 100 clients a day.

"We're here and we're doing the best we can," said Tomeka Rushing, office coordinator for HEAP. "Do we want long lines outside? Of course not."

She said the agency has served more than 3,200 people with emergency HEAP this year.

EOPA has received increased scrutiny lately as a result of turmoil on its board of directors, and over financial problems and personnel issues.

Those needing assistance must call 1-866-504-7392 to schedule an appointment. When The Blade called the line yesterday and Tuesday, there was a busy signal or a recording saying all the appointments are filled.

Mr. Powell said he discourages people lining up outside in the mornings and he advised people to just keep calling.

"They have to keep trying," he said. "I guess some people have stayed on the phone for two or three hours, just redialing."

He said the state mandates that they use the hot-line system to schedule appointments. Kelly Schlissberg, a spokesman for the state Department of Development, said last night she was not able to verify that the state requires the hot line.

Kamilah Barney said she has been calling for two weeks trying to get an appointment, in addition to standing outside the office several mornings.

She still has not been able to receive assistance.

"Each time I go, it's the same problem," she said. "Long lines, people being turned away. What does that say if you have to get up at 2 o'clock in the morning [to get there]?"

With the economic crisis, more people are in need of assistance this year. As of yesterday, 191,613 people have applied for HEAP, according to the Ohio Development of Development.

That's about 35,000 more than at the same time last year. For its emergency HEAP program, 71,105 people have applied so far this year, about 4,000 more than at the same time last year.

In Ohio, families who earn up to 175 percent of the federal poverty level - $37,100 for a family of four - are eligible for the HEAP programs.

Lucas County Commissioner Ben Konop said he has received complaints about the process.

"We've got to figure out a way to make this program work better," he said. "We have to treat people with more dignity than making them stand out in the cold."

He said he has called the EOPA official in charge of the program, as well as the board member appointed by the commissioners. The agency does not receive any funds from the county.

The lines and difficulty of getting an appointment appear to be an ongoing problem.

"Hardly a day goes by that our caseworkers don't hear from someone who is unhappy with the process of applying," said Steve Fought, spokesman for U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo). If people are applying for emergency assistance, they most likely have received a shutoff notice, he said.

He added that his office doesn't get nearly as many complaints about applying for HEAP from the other counties in the district, which are served by other community action agencies. EOPA serves Lucas County.

"I don't know what they do differently [at other agencies]," Mr. Fought said. "I don't know what the problem is over there [at EOPA], but we hear about it quite a bit."

At WSOS, which serves Wood, Sandusky, Seneca, and Ottawa counties, appointments are scheduled throughout the day, and people can call the office and speak with a receptionist, said Tony Lindenberger, basic needs specialist.

About 40 people are seen per day among all four counties, and there is no limit on walk-ins, though there are no guarantees walk-ins will be seen without an appointment, he said.

Community action agencies in Ohio's other urban areas have reported long lines of people waiting to apply for the program, said Eileen Turner, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Development.

At the Stark County Community Action Agency, in Canton, people had been lining up early in the morning, trying to get one of only five to 10 walk-in spots available.

Last week, the agency changed its policy - to not have walk-ins Monday through Thursday, and see the first 75 walk-ins on Friday.

With the new policy, "it's easier to accommodate people and they know what to expect," said a representative of the agency.

United Way's 211 help line has received about 14,000 calls for utility assistance in the last five months, said Bill Kitson, the agency's president and chief executive officer, speaking at a utility assistance forum last week.

During the same five-month period last year, it received less than half that number. Utility assistance has surpassed food as the top need, Mr. Kitson said.

Chris Kozak, a Columbia Gas spokesman, said he is aware of the long lines at EOPA, and in fact met with Mr. Powell last week about the problem.

"We want to make sure everyone can get their service who needs to get their service," he said.

Because of a recent approval by the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, the average monthly gas bill will be about $170, up from about $149 a year ago.

Forecasters are calling for a mild winter in the Midwest.

Contact Kate Giammarise at:

kgiammarise@theblade.com

or 419-724-6133.



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