By Tamara El-Khoury Watson
Last month a daughter of a disabled veteran who was too depressed and discouraged to reach out for help did so on his behalf. She dialed 2-1-1 to ask for help locating an emergency food pantry. At the end of the call, the relieved daughter had information on the nearest food pantry as well as where to apply for food assistance. She was even connected to a program to help her father with gas money so he could attend his brother’s funeral.
“The resources were in her backyard, she just didn’t know about it,” said Jennie Pollak, manager of Central Michigan 2-1-1, which serves nine counties including Ingham County.
Whether in need of a food pantry, help paying a utility bill, or aid for an unexpected life crisis, Michigan residents can dial 2-1-1, 24 hours a day, every day of the week to reach someone who will connect them to available resources. Founded in Michigan 15 years ago, as of Dec. 20, every Michigan resident has access to 2-1-1 to find help in their community.
This referral service is not unique to Michigan. In fact, 93 percent of the U.S. population can dial 2-1-1 for help, said Tom Page, executive director of Michigan 2-1-1. Nationally, the leading financial support for the service comes from United Ways, he said. Capital Area United Way funds Central Michigan 2-1-1’s service in Clinton, Eaton and Ingham counties.
United Ways used to take these calls in their business offices but realized a 2-1-1 center that could focus on maintaining a community resource database, and be available 24-7, would be more reliable and effective. That resource database is made available online as a tool for the community to use, at www.mi211.org.
In the last year, the seven 2-1-1 centers in Michigan fielded 400,000 calls for help and made 675,000 referrals, including to residents dealing with the aftermath of the water issue in Flint, MI.
“The people calling 2-1-1 are mostly low income—the single largest group would be single moms with kids – and they’re looking for heat, food and a safe place to live,” Page said.
The leading calls for help by 2-1-1 callers is for assistance with utility bills. In the past year, almost 22 percent of requests for help in Ingham County were for utilities, namely electric bills. When a person dials 2-1-1, they are connected to an Information and Referral Specialist who has access to a regularly-updated database of all local resources and will provide the necessary information to help connect with available support.
One utility assistance resource a caller may connect with is Consumers Energy’s Consumers Affordable Resource for Energy (CARE) program. A Consumers Energy customer who has a past due bill and an income at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty guidelines ($36,000 for a family of four) is eligible for the program which gives a year discount on their monthly bills and can have their past due balance forgiven.
“The plan is really meant to act as a bridge for someone who is having a difficult time,” said Whitney Skeans, customer assistance manager for Consumers Energy.
In addition to utility assistance and other basic needs, December brings calls from people seeking help with acquiring gifts and food for the holidays. Unfortunately, Pollak said, many holiday programs require sign-ups in early November. For those seeking to help those in need during the holidays, Pollak suggests calling the Salvation Army or Advent House for volunteer and donation opportunities.
“Often people call as they’re getting close to a crisis or an emergency,” Pollak said. “They can call at any point to be planful or … just to know the community and how to navigate the resources that are there to help them.”
For almost 100 years, Capital Area United Way has served the residents of Ingham, Eaton and Clinton counties by connecting people in need with local resources. In this series, Tamara El-Khoury Watson, Community Resources associate at Capital Area United Way, will introduce readers to the people and programs of United Way working to improve our entire community.
This was printed in the December 25, 2016 - January 7, 2017 edition.z