Story and photos by Jonathan Stumpf
Reporting for West Seattle Blog
Last night, at a special West Seattle joint meeting of the CIty Council’s Energy/Technology/Civil Rights, and Public Utilities/Neighborhoods Committees at the Chief Sealth/Boren campus, it was brought to the attention of councilmembers Mike O’Brien, Bruce Harrell, and Richard Conlin, that there’s a large disconnect between the discount utility, emergency shut-off, and home improvement services available to the community and those qualified that actually use them.
Presenting this info to the councilmembers and the audience of about 60 were various staff from Seattle City Light, Seattle Public Utilities, Mayor’s Office for Senior Citizens, Seattle Human Services, Seattle Office of Housing, St. Vincent De Paul, Central Area Motivation Program, and Council central staff.
Councilmember O’Brien opened the meeting with a call to the community.
“We want to hear from the community members about what works and what is challenging, and help to bridge that gap from a policy perspective,” he said. “Only 20 percent of residents partake in cities programs that are eligible. Part of tonight is about that.”
Meg Moorehead from the Council Central Staff began by explaining an alarming trend.: in 2002, when participation from community members was at 20 percent, they changed the eligibility requirements and increased outreach efforts numerous times, but have not been able to increase enrollment. Presently, there are just over 17,000 residents enrolled in a variety of community assistance programs available from Seattle City Light and Seattle Public Utilities, with about $163 being used on average per customer.
Programs for qualified residents include up to a 50 percent reduction for utilities, 60 percent reduction for electric, emergency shut-off assistance including a cap on past-due amounts, a water-conservation program that includes free toilet repair, weatherization programs that increase the energy efficiency of homes, and home repair programs that assist with safety issues.
Bob Auerbach from St. Vincent De Paul — a liaison for residents and city assistance programs — declared that outreach is a big problem, but that finding time to visit a city office for applications makes it difficult too, citing work and child care as two barriers to travel. “That’s where we come in, by making ourselves available at an individual’s home,” said Auerbach.
Susan McAllister of the city Human Services Department discussed their People Point program, which she said is “a new way of doing business with access to benefits of these programs.” The People Point program is launching a pilot consolidated application program that will consist of one application to be used for all support services, with the hopes of creating an online application portal to streamline the services.
Members of the audience were also given an opportunity to discuss and present ideas and issues to council members.
Steve Fox, executive director of the Puget Sound Labor Agency, told the council his agency is on the frontlines, willing to work, but running low on funding and doesn’t want to turn people away. “I’m not asking for money, just assistance to get them where they need to be,” said Fox.
Some residents asked about outreach to landlords, since they often carry the bill or use a third-party billing service.
Mohammed Sheikh Hassan, director of Afrique Service Center, said the gap is not only a lack of outreach, but also a huge cultural gap, suggesting the need for these service plans to include community organizational outreach in their plans. “The website suggestion doesn’t resonate with us,” said Hassan. “They can’t even read and write their own language. If you bring it to us, we will explain to their community, in their own language.”
Various other members of the Ethiopian community — with Hassan translating — also presented their stories to the councilmembers. Another eligibility issue that is common among many residents is the fact that subsidized housing eliminates any resident from assistance in any utility program. One resident was paying $800 a month for a two-bedroom subsidized home, but then had a $250 electricity and utility bill.
Councilmember Harrell asked how that could be changed. Dave Broom from Seattle Human Services replied, “It is in the Seattle Municipal Code, which you can change. “
Harrell said they understand that Seattle has become unaffordable and that they will work toward improving things, based on the information presented.