BY ANNE STANTON
TRAVERSE CITY — Winter's chill is settling in and area agencies are receiving frantic calls from those who need last-minute help with their utility bills.
"I feel like most families are definitely going from paycheck-to-paycheck so when they're experiencing anything out of the usual, it's a tragedy for them financially," said Brittney Bichel, an AmeriCorps volunteer at HelpLink, a nonprofit that guides people to social service agencies.
TrueNorth Community Services is a new player in providing assistance. The Michigan Public Service Commission provided the nonprofit with a $6 million grant to assist folks living in 32 rural Michigan counties, including all of northwest Michigan, said spokeswoman Darci David.
Representatives from TrueNorth visited United Way of Northwest Michigan offices on Tuesday to present the program. Applicants are invited to visit the local Department of Human Services office.
The need for help is real.
"I've been fighting to get qualified for disability, then my house went into foreclosure," said Diane Norman, 51, of Fife Lake. "It's just been a very, very hard time for me."
Norman went to the Father Fred Foundation in November to keep her gas and electricity running.
Traverse City Light and Power disconnects an average of 10 to 15 customers weekly, which effectively shuts off furnaces and electric heat. The utility won't disconnect senior citizens, ages 62 and up, or anyone who is on documented life support, said Jessica Wheaton, utility spokeswoman.
Prior to the cut-off, the utility sends three notices and tries to work with customers to set up a payment plan or connect them with agencies, Wheaton said.
If the bill still isn't paid, the meter reader goes to the door to report the cut-off, she said.
"We have to disconnect them out of fairness to our paying customers," she said.
A DTE Energy spokesman said the utility abides by Michigan Public Service Commission rules that allow elderly and qualifying low income customers to pay only 7 percent of their total bills between November 1 and March 31. They also must pay past due bills on a payment plan. The entire balance must be paid in installments beginning in April.
The utility won't shut off elderly or low income customers, unless they have tampered with the meter.
To prepare for winter's uptick in requests for assistance, the Father Fred Foundation gathered key nonprofits and government agencies last fall, said Pat Simon, executive director of Love in the Name of Christ, a nonprofit ministry funded by area churches.
Love INC provides help to those willing to transform their situation, she said.
"We want to give a hand up, not a hand out," she said.
The Father Fred Foundation saw a 12 percent increase in 2012 for people who needed help with their utility bills, said spokeswoman Joan O'Neill.
The foundation gave $315,000 to needy families to pay utility bills in 2012, she said.
"Shut-offs are something we assist with on a daily basis," O'Neill said.
The client must provide a utility cut-off notice, as well as a DHS denial letter, O'Neill said.
Father Fred caps cash assistance for any need, such as bus passes or utility bills, at $400 per household. But assistance averaged only $176 last year, O'Neill said.
That lower number implies most families ask for help only when there's an emergency, she said.
The Michigan Public Service Commission strongly advises customers to contact their utility before they receive a shut-off notice.