As the winter wears on, plenty of Chicagoans take for granted the refuge of their warm, comfortable homes as they duck inside and out of the weather. But for many of LAF’s clients, that security is in jeopardy, owing to the simple fact that they sometimes lack the resources to pay their utility bills. This becomes especially dangerous during the winter months when heating costs spike, making a tight financial situation even tighter; and when temperatures drop below zero, threatening health and safety.
Depending on their income level, clients may be eligible for grants from LIHEAP (CEDA) or from their utility provider to offset the cost of monthly bills. Those whose service has been shut off may qualify for assistance getting their heat or power reconnected, or to pay off overdue service fees over time.
Unfortunately, these programs are subject to slow administrative processes and complex rules and regulations that can lead to shutoffs while benefits are being processed, or prevent low-income individuals from seeking benefits altogether. To better serve our clients, Barbara Richardson of LAF’s Consumer Practice Group recently held a training session for her fellow staff members to discuss the various utility assistance programs available to LAF’s clients and the strategies they might employ to avoid having service disconnected.
Barbara speaks from experience about how her clients often feel coerced into agreeing to terms for paying off past-due bills. “Of course they will agree to something they can’t afford; they need their utilities back on,” she says. Sometimes clients are forced to choose between heating their homes during the winter or cooling them when the weather warms up. “A lot of our clients are accustomed to living without utilities for months in the summer,” Barbara adds. “It’s a cycle.”
LAF attorneys, paralegals, and intake specialists discussed how other common legal issues facing families living in poverty might complicate the utility issue. How do state budget issues affect clients’ options for seeking help? What if the client has a disability? What he or she needs power in their home to operate medical equipment? What if the meters measuring their gas or electricity consumption have been tampered with?
Answering these questions for our attorneys, so they can answer them for clients, is an integral part of LAF’s mission. The more we learn about the diverse and interconnected problems people living in poverty face, the better equipped we are to advance equal justice and get our clients’ lives back on track.