LYNWOOD — An elderly woman worried that her family could not pay utility bills due to coronavirus layoffs experienced by her sibling, flashed a big smile when an angel donor pledged money to cover a month’s worth of utilities.
Thanks to the local stimulus challenge, a rescue plan without municipal funds devised by City Council members Marisela Santana and Jose Solache, residents wrenched by the economic effects of business shutdowns, job furloughs or terminations or can obtain relief from celebrities and area residents on good financial footing.
“When she realized her bill was going to be paid, she was so happy,” Santana said of the woman, who wanted to remain anonymous. “There is a tremendous need in our community now.”
One goal of the challenge, launched May 2 on social media channels, is for Lynwood friends, business owners, investors and others to commit funds and help city residents struggling to cover utility bills that mount in the face of rent and children rearing during the COVID-19 crisis.
Contributions can be made with checks of $25, $50 or $100 payable to Southern California Edison and Southern California Gas Company, providers of electricity and natural gas services in Lynwood, Santana said. Cash is not accepted.
The only condition asked is to leave the checks’ memo slot open so that organizers print a beneficiary’s account number.
Both council members said they expect to secure donations of at least $10,000 this month. Three days after the drive began they had already collected $6,000 in support of the residents, all in a transparent way, Solache said.
They expect at least 100 families will benefit from charity donors to pay current or past due bills.
Residents can qualify to obtain the assistance if they are nominated by anyone visiting Lynwood’s social media portals, by telephone, or by themselves, with the caveat that the applicants should tell a credible story of economic distress caused by the COVID-19 virus.
Some angel donors prefer to cover utility bills using personal credit or debit cards and ensure the funds go directly to help ailing customers they get to know by accessing their names, pictures and copies of the bills gathered by the organizers.
“Our communities have witnessed times that we’ve never imagined in our lifetimes,” Solache said. “Families are struggling.”
Residents are vexed about putting food on the table or paying the bills during the pandemic, Santana said.
‘This [program] is more of a grassroots effort. The most ideal way is to reach out to businesses and people who we know here in Lynwood,” but Hollywood actors and media brokers are encouraged to participate, said the councilwoman.
Santana, a former reporter for The Wave, established a list of professional contacts with entertainment figures, and revealed that she reached via email out to Lynwood natives like actor Kevin Costner and singer Weird Al Yankovic. She also asked media mogul Tyler Perry to support the cause.
The councilwoman referred to Perry’s previous acts of entering grocery stores and paying for everyone’s carts as an encouraging template of what can be achieved in Lynwood to meet “a silent need that families who have had to defer utility bills will be faced with real soon.”
The Lynwood City Council agreed to defer for three months payments on utility bills after the state and local emergencies were declared March 16.
Solache explained the process to make phone payments using cards for SCE is easy, because the company set up an account with Chase Bank that streamlines each transaction.
SoCalGas works with a digital financial processor called Billmatrix from Dallas, Texas, which charges a fee per processing card payments, but does not add surcharges if the bills are paid with checks.
Several utility and telecommunication companies have decided not to shut off services during the health emergency, and have waived penalties on late bills.
AT&T, Sprint, Verizon and T-Mobile signed an agreement with the Federal Communications Commission to halt late fees and pledged to keep business and residents connected from March 16 to May 15 in case they miss payments.
The phone companies also committed to unlock Wi-Fi hotspots to anyone unable to pay for the subscription who requests it.
Charter Communications agreed to offer free broadband internet connection during the same period to households with students without a previous Spectrum subscription on any contract up to 100Mbps, waiving installation fees.
SCE and SoCal Gas also pledged not to cancel services if customers fail to pay the bills by due dates within the same period. Both utilities stated their policies will remain in place until further notice, with the caveat that bills must eventually be covered.
SCE indicated that it will provide power for commercial and residential customers until lockdown restrictions in the county are lifted, and stated it would work with customers to arrange payments stretching up to 12 months, and waive penalty fees by request.
For those with past due accounts, the utility would offer six months to cover the missed payments free of surcharges.
For its part, Los Angeles County ramped up its low-income assistance program with the Department of Public and Social Services to provide monetary assistance to residents who have lost jobs due to COVID-19, stressing that only citizens and legal residents can apply.
The Lynwood program could be extended if the coronavirus continues to pose a threat to residents or health authorities and government leaders conclude partial lockdown measures should continue, Solache said.
He encouraged all residents affected by the economic downturn to find someone to nominate them, or to apply themselves, without fear or thoughts of self-blame.
“You live in a community,” Solache said. “This is not the time to bear shame. This is the time of getting a little relief. It’s only one month to go.”
Before the virus unleashed closures and dismissals, the city installed an online system to streamline payments of utilities for homeowners with the Lynwood Water Department, and electricity and gas for any resident with an account. They can access electronic files on billing history and call for questions related to the services. Checks for the Lynwood’s Stimulus Financial Challenge can be mailed to: Friends of Solache, P.O. Box 334, Lynwood, 90262, or email Santana at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Alfredo Santana