STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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Michigan's frigid winter has led to a surge of requests for assistance with energy bills

Dustin Dwyer
Michigan Radio

Temperatures are expected to dip below zero again tomorrow morning in parts of lower Michigan.

It’s been a long winter for all of us. But for those struggling to cover their heating bill, the frigid weather poses a much bigger risk.

"When the weather does get colder, we do see an uptick in calls for utility requests," says Sherri Vainavicz, who directs the Heart of West Michigan United Way’s 2-1-1 call center. 

This year, that uptick is more of a surge. Requests for utility bill assistance through the 2-1-1 service are up 47% so far this year in Kent County alone. 

Credit Data provided by Heart of West Michigan United Way / Graphic by Michigan Radio
Graphic by Michigan Radio

"Naturally when it gets below zero, families are afraid what would happen if they lost their utility service," Vainavicz says.

Once the call comes in, families could be referred to a couple different places. One might be the state’s Department of Human Services, another might be the Salvation Army, which has been pretty busy lately too.

"There is more need than we can possibly manage," says Darcy Cunningham, who directs the Salvation Army’s utility assistance operations for Kent County.

"We’re doing a lot this year to increase our capacity," Cunningham says, "but we’re receiving lots of calls all the time."

The Salvation Army has added about 20 case specialists in the past year to help handle increased demand for help with utility bills. But it still can take days to get an appointment, after you make that first call.

That can be a real problem for people who wait to get their first shutoff notice before they ask for help.

"When it gets to a certain point, and you only have a monthly income, you have to budget and plan for every penny of that money," says Stephanie Agnew, who lives on a monthly budget in Grand Rapids. She says she even sets aside money for surprises. But recently, she got a bigger surprise than she expected.

"So if I plan on paying a hundred dollars a month, and I get a bill that’s 500 dollars a month, any other person would be like, 'That’s it, I can’t do it,'" she says.

Agnew didn’t give up. First she asked about utility assistance when she was at the office for the state Department of Human Services. She says she was told she couldn’t get assistance there. But while at the Salvation Army offices in Grand Rapids, she asked again.

"I’ve always known that if I needed help for this, the only stupid question is the one you don’t ask," Agnew says.

Asking for help put her in touch with Darcy Cunningham, and got her enrolled in a program to help pay down her utility bill before she and her 16 year old daughter even got a shutoff notice.

"If you fall behind on a bill and know that you're not going to be able make it next month, give us a call," says Sherri Vainavicz, 2-1-1 Program Manager for the Heart of West Michigan United Way. "Because there is help out there before it gets to the crisis stage."

There are certain circumstances under which the utility companies just suspend shutoffs. If you’re a senior citizen, for example, and the account is in your name. And, when the state experiences extreme cold, like it has for several days in the past few weeks.

Utilities are also chipping in more toward assistance programs. So is the state.

So the advice from people who work to help families in need of assistance is simple:

"If you fall behind on a bill and know that you’re not going to be able make it next month, give us a call," says Vainavicz, of the Heart of West Michigan United Way. "Because there is help out there before it gets to the crisis stage."

Vainavicz says for families that do reach that crisis stage, help may not be available right away. It takes time to turn your power back on once it’s been shut off. In weather like this, living without heat isn’t just a discomfort. It’s a real risk. 

If you're struggling to keep up with your utility bills, call 2-1-1 for assistance. 

Dustin Dwyer is a reporter on the State of Opportunity project, based in Grand Rapids. Previously, he worked as an online journalist for Changing Gears, as a freelance reporter and as Michigan Radio's West Michigan Reporter. Before he joined Michigan Radio, Dustin interned at NPR's Talk of the Nation, wrote freelance stories for The Jackson Citizen-Patriot and completed a Reporting & Writing Fellowship at the Poynter Institute.