State Delaying Heating Assistance

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Michigan residents who need help paying their heating bills are going to have to wait to get heating assistance.

A new law is forcing the state to deny applications until the beginning of November.

"It's panic in the City of Lansing because there's not one agency out there that has the capabilities of filling this void," said Joan Jackson Johnson, the director of human relations and community services for the city.

Johnson said it's a void that will be hurting more than 1,200 people in the Lansing area who rely on heating assistance in a given month.

More than 25,000 people in Michigan used heating assistance in a given month in 2012, according to the Department of Human Services.

While the bill was signed into law in January, Johnson said the city only recently received word of when it'd be taking effect.

"To completely remove it without notice is unfair and unconscionable," Johnson said. "I just wonder who makes those decisions."

David Akerly with the Michigan Department of Human Services said the steady decline in federal funding coming into the state for the past few years is partially to blame for the move.

But under the new law--with the crisis assistance period now between Nov. 1 and May 31--DHS says they'll actually be helping more people, and earlier than before.

"We're going to do the best we can with the funds that are out there," Akerly said. "We're going to try to get people earlier the process so that we can be more proactive."

Qualifying for help now begins when someone receives a past-due notice and now when they face a shut-off of utilities.

"We're going to be helping a lot of people, there's no question," Akerly said. "We're going to be helping them earlier in the process if they're having a problem."

But in the meantime, Johnson said she's hoping to find a way to get those most in need through to November.

"Where is the humanity in all of this," she said. "There are so many here who are voiceless and no one is listening right now."

Steve Serkaian, a spokesperson for Lansing Board of Water & Light said the utility is always willing to work with customers who feel they're in danger of falling behind on payments.

BWL will even work with customers to set up partial payment plans if necessary, he said.

The Salvation Army, the United Way, and BWL's "Pennies for Power" program are always looking for donations to help with assistance programs.

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