No DHS crisis utility aid during summer

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The Michigan Department of Human Services isn’t paying for the utility bills of people in need this summer.

In the past, DHS offered help year-round, but this year the utility assistance program was restructured. The state has opted only to offer crisis aid for utilities during what they’re calling the “crisis season” between Nov. 1 and May 31.

This summer, no help has been made available for those seeking emergency help. It’s only being provided for families and individuals who signed up for low subsidy programs in advance.

“You’re dumbfounded ’cause you don’t know where to go,” said Tina Burgett, a Muskegon County woman who said she  requested aid from DHS to no avail this summer. “I believe it’s a crisis ’cause it’s either pay my rent or pay my light bill. So, do I choose to be homeless or pay my light bill and still be homeless?”

The change has emptied available funds of some of the major organizations that are there to fill in the gaps like the Salvation Army, a United Way spokesperson said. The call volume for utility help at the Kent County United Way has tripled — and many are being turned away.

“There is absolutely no funding available in the entire Kent County area to assist with an electric bill,” one 211 worker had to tell a caller Monday.

Sign up periods for regular low subsidy programs have ended until the fall, leaving thousands in a lurch.

“There’s not a whole lot if options for them,” Kent County 211 Program Manager Sherri Vainavicz said. “It’s not something that you want to tell people when they’re on the other end if the phone and they’ve got kids in the home or a senior in the home and you’re not really offering them too many options.”

The suggestion at this point is to reach out to churches and other private organizations that may offer utility help.

Vainavicz says participants in DHS’ program were notified of the restructure by mail but says many clients still say they were unaware.

A DHS spokesperson did not return a late Monday afternoon email request for comment.

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