Detroit News, March 10, 2008: More seek help with heating bills

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Jennifer Youssef and Nathan Hurst / The Detroit News

DETROIT — Record numbers of Metro Detroiters are seeking help to heat their homes this winter, as cold weather drives up gas bills and a sagging economy stretches wallets thin.

A large state program has seen a 42 percent increase in people applying for heating assistance this year. The nonprofit Heating and Warmth Fund (THAW) that helps those in need pay delinquent heating bills expects to serve a record number of people.

And DTE Energy and Consumers Energy, both of which have programs to help customers who are behind on their payments, also say requests for help have risen.

“More customers are falling between the cracks,” said Debra Harmon, corporate customer assistance manager at Consumers Energy. “Many of them have never had trouble paying their bills before.”

The surge in need is no surprise, given the toll Michigan’s economic slowdown has taken on the jobs and wages of thousands of residents. The state’s unemployment declined slightly from December to January, but still is the highest in the nation at 7.1 percent. And a colder winter than last year is adding to the problem by driving up monthly heating bills. Metro Detroit temperatures, on average, were colder than last year in November, December and January, according to National Weather Service data. Only February was warmer.

The State Emergency Relief Program — administered by the Department of Human Services and funded by the federal government — received 57,000 applications for heating assistance from October through December, according to Maureen Sorbet, spokeswoman for the department. That’s an increase of 24,000 over last year, or 42 percent.

The program is for low-income residents who have had their heat shut off or are about to. The benefits are capped based on the type of fuel used. Those with electric, natural gas or wood heating systems can receive $350 a year, while those using deliverable fuels like heating oil can receive up to $650.

THAW, which collects cash donations that it then distributes to families with delinquent energy bills, is on pace to surpass the 8,700 households it assisted last year, which was a record, CEO John X. Miller said.

Miller said 7,840 households had received assistance as of Feb. 25, with several more weeks of winter left to go. The program, with an annual budget of about $10 million, paid $1.5 million in heating bills in January alone, a record for the month.

He blamed the economy and housing slowdown for the surge in clients.

“People of all income brackets are being affected by the cold, snowy winter and the escalating fuel costs,” he said. “It hurts low-income people more because it takes a bigger chunk out of their budgets, but there are other people who need help as well.”The average household requesting assistance owes about $1,000, but he said some have been up to $10,000 in arrears. He said no qualified households have been turned away and there is still more than $3 million in this year’s budget.

‘I’m just grateful’

Unemployed and going through a divorce, 28-year-old Tina Thomas of Detroit didn’t know what to do when the gas company sent her a $6,000 bill and the third and final shutoff notice in September. Then she found out about THAW. The agency helped pay her bill and the gas was turned back on at her four-bedroom house.

“I’m just grateful,” she said of THAW. “I would have had to look for other places to get help.”

David Lagstein, an organizer in Detroit for the national poverty advocacy organization ACORN, said about 10 families come to the agency each week for assistance with heating bills, a number that has steadily increased in recent years.

ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, helps low-income families who have struck out with other agencies. It helps families negotiate with utility companies to make payments more affordable, and identify public and private assistance programs.

“Bills have gone up quite a bit in recent years, and it’s been hurting many low-income families in the Detroit area,” Lagstein said.

Lagstein expects the number needing help to only increase as the housing crisis lingers and consumer prices for food and energy stay high. That means the limited supply of heating assistance will need to grow.

“We are able to help about half of the people who need it, but there’s still a gap in the need and what’s available to help them,” Lagstein said. “One can’t underestimate how serious this problem is for families.”

Cold spell pushes bills up

This year, it wasn’t higher natural gas rates that contributed to more people falling behind on their heating bills. At Consumers, natural gas rates were flat with last year, and DTE’s rates actually fell.

But usage this year rose as the temperatures fell, hiking up heating bills and straining already tight household budgets.

DTE Energy spokeswoman Lorie Kessler said the utility has seen a 2.2 percent increase from last year to this year in the number of accounts that are past due. Harmon at Consumers said that on any given day, 10 percent to 12 percent of the 1.7 million Consumers Energy customers have trouble paying their bills.

Both companies offer assistance programs.

Consumers is promoting a program for customers who can’t qualify for other low-income programs. Dubbed PeopleCare Plus, it’s funded by donations that Consumers Energy collects and gives to the Salvation Army, which decides who gets help. This winter, the Salvation Army is distributing about $872,000 in energy assistance.

Customers having difficulty with their payments should call DTE early, before they get a shut-off notice, spokesman John Austerberry said.

“We like to think that no matter what situation our customer is in, that there’s something we can do to help them receive service throughout the winter.”

You can reach Jennifer Youssef at (313)222-2319 or

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