HYDE PARK — A website developed at the University of Chicago will allow neighbors to pay off utility bills that can pile up for families trying to get by.
The Community Utility website was launched in May by analysts at Radical Innovation for Social Change, a center started by Steven Levitt, University of Chicago economist and author of the bestselling book and podcast “Freakonomics.”
The website has more than 60 bills from Chicagoans behind on payments for gas and electric bills, said center analyst Anson Tong. Many are from people who are out of work due to COVID-19 or unable to work due to illness, Tong said.
Strangers have picked up eight bills so far.
The website can help families as they struggle through red tape to receive government assistance, she said. Too many Chicagoans have to make tough daily decisions between feeding their children, paying their rent or keeping their lights on.
“You have to jump through hoops to get state and federal aid. Applications are only open for certain months, [and] you have to know how to fill out extensive documentation, which can be difficult if you don’t speak English or don’t have reliable internet or a strong support system,” Tong said. “Mutual aid can help people pay essential bills when they’re actually due.”
Analysts at the center receive the funds through the site and pay the bills directly to utility providers, center analyst Karishma Chouhan said.
The center consulted local social service providers and other mutual aid foundations to create the site and pinpoint where the need was, she said.
“The premise is based on building solidarity in the Chicago community,” Chouhan said. “Utility bills can have a huge impact on people’s livelihoods and stress levels as they try just to make it through the day. This is a humanizing tool, because it helps us see each other’s struggles.”
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