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Valley couple struggle to find assistance when medical crisis strikes

Michael and his fiancée, Angeline, live on the North Side of Bethlehem, not far from the historic district and BASD Stadium. Their story is not uncommon among valley residents when unexpected financial crisis strikes.

Both were employed full time, with Michael earning the lion’s share of their combined six-figure annual income. Then, in October 2023, he became suddenly and unexpectedly ill, needing to be hospitalized three times, for more than a week each time. He lost his job at a retail furniture chain as doctors were in the process of diagnosing him with melanoma.

Three rounds of chemo later, with the couple living on roughly one-third of their former income and electric bills bafflingly high – $500 per month for a one-bedroom apartment – the bills had piled up, and Michael’s first claim for unemployment had been denied.

Rep. Steve Samuelson’s office responded swiftly to Michael’s plea for help.

“His office is the only reason I was able to receive [unemployment benefits],” Michael explains. “They were even nice enough to call me a week later, to ensure that I was contacted by Unemployment.”

Michael and Angeline also received a monetary gift from Trinity Episcopal Church, as well as discovering the Northeast Community Center food pantry. However, this has not been enough to get the couple back on their feet. They are still three months behind on their rent and their electric bills, and two months behind on their gas bill.

What surprised Michael was that the programs he had assumed would be there for people in emergency situations had evaporated.

Seeking help with his internet bill through the Affordable Connectivity Program, he found that it had stopped taking new enrollments as of the beginning of February 2024, and would end payments to existing enrollees shortly.

Turning to LIHEAP – the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program – for help with his astronomical PPL bills, he discovered that no assistance was available from that source, either. Congressional delays in passing the federal budget meant that only LIHEAP Crisis participants – people experiencing a sudden and very short-term emergency, like a heating boiler explosion – could receive the carefully husbanded funds. Although the Pa. Dept. of Human Services was still accepting applications for its LIHEAP Cash program, no Cash program payments would be made. And the income limit for LIHEAP Cash is $29,580 for a two-person household, less than Angeline’s pretax pay from her big-box retail job, so when the program restarted in April, the couple was still not eligible for help.

Unable to come up with the $500 that PPL demanded as a condition of entering its fixed-repayment program, Michael asked his doctor to certify that his medical condition required him to live in a heated home. The medical certificate must be renewed every 30 days if the electricity is to remain on in the couple’s apartment.

Michael is still recovering from his first three rounds of chemotherapy, and has one more round to go. Although he signed up for state-sponsored health insurance after losing his job, it does not cover all his medical expenses.

“I opened one bill that was $3,000,” Michael says, almost in disbelief, “and I just closed it.” He hasn’t had the heart to open other medical bills that have arrived.


unable to help

None of the charities that Michael contacted for rental assistance were able to help him. He received the same answer from Community Action Lehigh Valley, Family Promise, New Bethany, the Salvation Army and the Third Street Alliance: No funding for rental assistance. The Northampton County Community Mediation and Eviction Diversion Program directs residents of the City of Bethlehem to New Bethany, which Michael had already learned was unable to help him.

We spoke with Executive Director J. Marc Rittle of New Bethany, who explained that rental assistance was a small program before COVID, with roughly $70,000 per year funded under the Pa. Housing Affordability and Rehabilitation Enhancement Act, and funding has returned to pre-COVID levels. From August 2020 through July 2023, New Bethany processed $12 million in rental assistance – sometimes New Bethany issued the funds, and sometimes Northampton County cut the checks – with money from the Emergency Rental Assistance Program and other sources. Those sources of funds no longer exist.

“We’ve kind of walked away as a nation from focusing on homelessness prevention,” Rittle says, “which I think is unfortunate.”

New Bethany still provides rental assistance to veterans, as well as eviction mediation, and Bethlehem has included funding in its 2024 budget for rental assistance, which should be available later in the year.

Rittle encourages Bethlehem residents in need to contact New Bethany for help in their search for financial assistance. He also welcomes donations of food, including garden-grown produce, and volunteers for the food pantry and soup kitchen, as well as financial donations.

“We’re seeing double the people at our food pantry, and a 25 percent increase at our soup kitchen, and more people asking about housing assistance than ever before,” he says, at the same time that the volunteer force has decreased by half.


housing scarce

in Bethlehem

According to the City of Bethlehem’s “Opening Doors” report on housing instability, the average home price was $300,000 in May 2023, and the average one-bedroom apartment rented for $1,400 per month. For that rent to be affordable, the city says, a household would need to bring in $50,000 a year.

Michael told the Press that between his fiancée’s income and his unemployment check, he would be able to manage – if they hadn’t fallen behind on their rent and utility payments while he was ill. For about 22 percent of Bethlehem residents, the non-crisis situation is challenging enough: They earn less than $30,000 annually, and there are virtually no apartments available at the $800 per month price the city considers affordable for them.

Community Action Development Bethlehem Director Anna Smith echoes the Bethlehem report’s conclusions, and says the affordable housing crisis affects the whole Lehigh Valley. She notes that the application window for the housing rehabilitation program that Community Action Lehigh Valley administered for Lehigh County, Whole Home Repairs, closed in less than a week, “despite it being millions of dollars.”

She explains, “The need was far greater than what the program was able to cover.”

Smith concurs with Rittle that the era of federal cash availability for rental assistance and food assistance is over.

“At the height of the pandemic,” she remembers, “you saw a massive infusion of cash into the nonprofit sector as well as [into] municipal governments, which allowed us to expand dramatically the ability to meet the need […] For the most part, it’s drying up, and it doesn’t look like there’s going to be more major infusions of federal funding into these programs, which is tough if you look at [need situation in] the Lehigh Valley.”

Families trying to stay afloat are making increasingly difficult choices.

“We’re seeing more cases of a mom with kids moving into a room in a house with strangers,” Smith says. “We’re hearing that from our partners at the schools, and that brings with it its own challenges […] the related issues that come out of those living situations that folks are not necessarily choosing.”

An attempt to ‘bounce back’

Michael and Angeline eventually found HelpMeBounce.org, a crowdfunding charity strictly for people experiencing a medical crisis that affects their ability to pay their bills. Donations go directly to the vendors to whom the requester owes money – in Michael’s case, his landlord and his utility providers. He is looking for a total of $6,400, and had received when this article was written, $100 which went directly to his landlord.

Help Me Bounce is run by the Spare Key Foundation, with the goal of “helping families ‘bounce, not break’ during a medical crisis,” the group’s website explains. “Spare Key makes payments directly to the lender or servicer for each funding goal, so donors have 100 percent assurance that 100 percent of their donation will go exactly where it’s intended.” The charity requires that applicants have a “critical illness or serious injury” certified by a medical professional or social worker, a significant reduction in income because of the illness, a significant increase in expenses because of the illness, and U.S. citizenship.

Michael’s donation page is available online (helpmebounce.org/campaign/gould-jr-family).

Michael’s frustration and fear about the future are evident.

“I just feel it’s a shame with the way everything is in this country,” he says, noting that he struggles to reconcile Congressional authorizations of tens of billions of dollars for wars in Europe and the Middle East with the fact that middle class Americans struggle to pay their bills.

“At this point in time, it’s like, ‘Are you kidding me? You’ve sent more money’?” he says.

He notes, “It’s not just the [medical] crisis happening. It’s everything all at once. It’s the cost of everything […] I know we’re not the only ones. I dare to say there are a lot of people with the way the economy is, who are living paycheck to paycheck, who, if they got sick, would be in our position.”

PRESS IMAGE COURTESY medical news today What surprises local residents caught in a financial crisis is that the programs they may have assumed would be there for people in emergency situations have evaporated.
Press photo contributed Michael and Angeline eventually found HelpMeBounce.org, a crowdfunding charity strictly for people experiencing a medical crisis that affects their ability to pay their bills. Donations go directly to the vendors to whom the requester owes money
PRESS PHOTO CONTRIBUTED A recurrence of melanoma left Michael Gould unemployed and struggling to pay bills, including medical bills from repeated hospitalizations and chemotherapy.