Vera English 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 says. “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 says she relies on the assistance of friends and neighbors in situations like this because she has a disability, lives on a fixed income, and can’t 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 explains.
A before shot example of a house interior in need of repair in Cuyahoga County.
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 says 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 says she knew of CHS because, in 2016, the organization 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 CHS is to help connect Cuyahoga County residents who need structural repairs, like English, 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,” explains CHS’ executive director Andy Nikiforovs. “Much of it is quality of life stuff.”
Nikiforovs says this year’s budget for the home repair program is between $4 million and $5 million.
Though that number may sound high, the director is quick to point out that those funds tend to go quickly 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 that 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 has 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, said 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 adds, 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 deems a homeowner to be in trouble, the organization will help.
Unfortunately, Nikiforovs says, 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,” he says. “It’s the only room that has some heat.”
This story is sponsored by the Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative, which is composed of 20-plus Northeast Ohio news outlets including FreshWater Cleveland.