Area agencies provide residents with heating assistance

MANISTEE — As northern Michigan sees another round of winter weather, bringing cold temperatures and plenty of snow over the last week, many residents are staying indoors where it is warm.

The winter weather also brings higher household utility bills, and Manistee County residents have some options if they are having problems keeping up with heating expenses throughout the season.

Several area organizations receive federal and state funding to help residents pay their heating-related bills that are overdue, including utilities, such as electric and gas. Many have programs to help people with deliverable fuels as well, such as propane and wood. Others can help area residents enroll in savings plans offered by several area energy suppliers.

Rose Fosdick, director of Manistee County 2-1-1, said the assistance programs will operate differently than in past years due to changes with the Michigan Department of Health & Human Services (DHHS).

“In the past, people were able to go to either DHHS, FiveCAP or Salvation Army for (Michigan Energy Assistance Program) funding, and this year they changed it so everything has to start with an application at DHHS,” she said. “They can do that online through MI Bridges, and unfortunately it has to go through there first, but after it has gone through DHHS it will go to the local programs.”

Fosdick encourages applicants to use the MI Bridges site to ensure a more efficient process.

“Unfortunately, it’s tough because with some of the changes with DHHS as they’ve changed to a universal casework, and it has caused some backlog in getting information entered,” she said. “I tell everyone to go through the online site because it cuts out having to have someone enter it.”

Fosdick added that there are several areas in Manistee County without internet access, and applicants who need help throughout the process can contact Manistee County United Way at (231) 723-2331.

Those needing assistance can apply through the MI Bridges website at newmibridges.michigan.gov, apply in person at the local DHHS office or contact one of many local agencies to schedule an appointment to help with the application process.

In the past, each agency handled applications in-house.

“When people apply, they’re applying for State Emergency Relief and the Michigan Energy Assistance Programs,” said Bob Wheaton, public information officer for DHHS’ Office of Communication. “If they are eligible, they will be eligible for both.”

Once a client is approved, they can receive help from a local agency. However, if a client is not approved, the local agencies cannot use MEAP funds to help them.

To be eligible, the applicant must be at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty level, and cash assets over $50 are counted, with exceptions for homestead, one vehicle and personal and household goods.

“The SER program will pay crisis cost to reconnect them to energy services or prevent service shutoff, and also pays the utility bills for the next 30 days,” Wheaton said. “The MEAP program will pay for services to help them become energy self-sufficient and not need crisis assistance in the future.”

SER payments come from DHHS, but MEAP programs are administered through local agencies. The funds are a one-time payment per fiscal year, and there is a lifetime cap per household.

FiveCAP is one of many local agencies who can provide assistance with the DHHS applications, and executive director Mary Trucks said the new system is a major transition.

“Some people, particularly the elderly, do not have computers and they are not comfortable going through the computer application process,” said Trucks. “One of our roles is to help them navigate the process and offer other assistance if needed. If we find out about other needs they have we can often help them with other services we offer.”

Angela Anderson, community support at FiveCAP, said several applicants have encountered technical issues on the MI Bridges website.

“There seems to be a bit of a hiccup with the identity verification process,” she said. “The technical staff had to help get them verified to even access their account. In some cases, (applicants) don’t remember their login and that also gives them some issues.”

Salvation Army is another agency that provides a number of services to community members who need help.

Although the Manistee office of Salvation Army closed last year, county residents can continue to seek assistance through the Ludington office.

The Salvation Army’s Energy Assistance Services (EAS) can provide bill payment assistance, energy company subsidy program enrollment and case management services. Case specialists provide one-on-one support to determine eligibility and to assess each applicant’s needs.

The Little River Band of Ottawa Indians offers short-term assistance to tribal members experiencing an energy crisis, and who meet the eligibility guidelines through MEAP, according to the tribe’s website.

Further information on heating assistance programs in the county can be found by calling 2-1-1.

Benzie County Record Patriot staff writer Colin Merry contributed to this report.

HEATING HELP

The following agencies provide heating assistance in the Manistee County area:

• Salvation Army Ludington office — call (231) 843-3711 for an appointment;

• FiveCAP — call (231) 723-8327 in Manistee or (231) 757-3785 in Scottville;

• Little River Band of Ottawa Indians — tribal assistance, call (231) 723-8288;

• TrueNorth Community Services — Call (231) 355-5880 or visit tnempower.org; and

• Michigan Department of Health & Human Services — (231) 723-8375.

This list may not include all agencies providing services. Further resources can be found by calling 2-1-1.

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