Your car broke down. Your hours at work were cut. Your debit card was stolen and money taken from your account. Ends just didn’t meet. Whatever happened, if you need help with your utility bill, there are resources to help you- especially as winter approaches and cold weather hits parts of the United States. Utility assistance programs are very state-specific, but there are some commonalities between states that can be helpful.
1. There are rules and guidelines regarding turning off the utilities to a residence that companies and municipalities must adhere to.
These rules and guidelines are spelled out in your Customer Bill of Rights documentation that utility companies must provide. In general, however, some basic rules hold true for most states:
- Utilities can not be turned off if there is a disabled person, elderly person, or child in the residence
- Utilities can not be turned off if the temperature will be below 32 degrees Fahrenheit
To learn more about the rules in your state, this website from the Department of Health and Human Services has general information as well as contact information. Knowing the rules for utility shut off in your area can help you if you believe your utilities were turned off and should not have been. If you believe your utilities have been improperly shut off, contact your local legal services office for advice and support.
2. Depending on a variety of factors, you might qualify for the Department of Health and Human Services’s Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP.) These programs specifically offer help with your utility bill.
There are restrictions for household income set by the government, but if you qualify for other benefits like SNAP, SSI, or other programs, you may be eligible for LIHEAP. There is an online questionnaire to see if you might be eligible, available at this link.
3. Benefits are provided on a long term or crisis basis, depending on which program individuals apply to. Funds for help with your utility bill are sent directly to the utility providers to cover costs.
Unfortunately, the assistance tends not to cover an entire season’s worth of utility bills and can only be used for one fuel source (heat or electricity,can count against immigrants to the US who are applying for green cards.
These programs have a fairly extensive application process that requires documentation. Funds are also limited, so once funding is exhausted, there are no more LIHEAP benefits until the next year. Find your tribal or state LIHEAP contact information here.
4. If your utilities are at risk of shutoff, utility companies and municipalities can set up a payment plan to help with your utility bill.
They typically require a downpayment amount, but they do then divide the amount you owe over a set period of time. The representative you speak to may only be able to design a specific “deal” with you, so be patient and request to speak to their supervisor who might have more options available to them.
5. Local charitable organizations that are not already partnered in a LIHEAP program may offer fuel assistance as well as help with your utility bill.
Church organizations and the Salvation Army are prime examples of organizations that can help with utility assistance for individuals and families in need. These organizations, if not accepting federal funding, would not be required to submit names to the federal government, an issue that might be of concern for families who are not citizens or are in the process of applying for US citizenship.
If you don’t know where to turn, your local United Way or 2-1-1 line can provide lists of resources specific to your municipality. Asking for assistance, especially financial assistance, can be uncomfortable and awkward, but there is support out there if you find yourself struggling to pay for utilities.