by Eliza Schafler
Eliza Schafler is an MHAS Equal Justice Works Fellow sponsored by Greenberg Traurig, LLP.
At MHAS, many of our clients incur utility debt. This type of debt can be caused by general financial hardship; it may also pile up when a person is hospitalized, suffers abuse, or is forced to leave home for another reason. Worse still, large amounts of utility debt may be created due to mistakes by the utility companies. These mistakes are hard to identify and correct, especially for those unaccustomed to navigating bureaucratic systems.
Utility debt can cause serious stress, which can be particularly toxic for those with pre-existing mental health challenges. In addition, it comes with the very real risk that the power will be turned off, causing an effective loss of housing, access to food, and medication storage. These problems impact adults, children, and families.
Fortunately, we have been able to use legal assistance to erase unfair utility debt. This month, MHAS attorney Nishanthi Kurukurasuriya worked with a client with a utility bill for tens of thousands of dollars. During the period when the debt accrued, the client had been hospitalized and displaced from his home. This utility bill was not only causing stress, but it had led to the power being shut off, rendering the client homeless. Fortunately, MHAS was able to successfully demand the removal of the entire debt, giving the client a home and an opportunity to achieve stability.
We both celebrate this victory and recognize the ongoing challenges that utility debt poses for the communities we serve.