Local organizations set their sights on long-term COVID-19 needs

While Michigan has experienced a surge in unemployment claims over the last couple of months, there is the worry that the need for assistance will increase once restrictions are lifted on mortgage, rent and utility deferments. 

Long term, Bay County agencies and 211 of Northeast Michigan are anticipating increased uncertainty around the viability of nonprofits and childcare providers, an expansion of the ALICE population, an increase in cases of domestic violence, abuse and neglect and the need for mental health support among other needs. With rent and some bills delayed at the moment, they have reported people actually aren’t calling 211 for help with the same frequency.

Currently, 29% of Bay County households fall into the ALICE population and 16% fall below the federal poverty line. ALICE stands for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed. People in the ALICE population make more than the federal poverty guidelines, but less than the basic cost of living.

“We are preparing for the aftermath of COVID-19 on our region as we begin to see businesses open up and we all start to transition out of Stay Home, Stay Safe,” says Holly Miller, Executive Director for United Way of Midland County.

 “We have witnessed our community spring into action, from pop-up food pantries, to COVID-19 relief funds, as many organizations worked together to help initially fill the short-term gaps and demands for resources and critical supplies. Now that we can see a path forward, we are concerned about what happens after we open up. So, we are focused on how we can best aid our community so we don’t see organizations flooded with need.”

United Way of Bay County Executive Director Marybeth Laisure and Bay Area Community Foundation President Diane Fong said they’re seeing the same situation here. The Bay Area Community Foundation launched a COVID-19 Community Response Fund this year to address needs.

Fong and Laisure also are steering requests for help to 211 of Northeast Michigan. Helping over 1 million people across 23 counties, 211 of Northeast Michigan has experienced a drop in calls recently, but the organization expects a surge of demand is coming.

“Most of our services depend on what county you live in, so our first question when people call is ‘what is your zip code?’, from there we determine what programs and assistance they qualify for,” says Shirley Southworth, marketing coordinator and certified resource specialist with 211 of Northeast Michigan.

One of the biggest hurdles for people seems to be the first step.

“We try to help people realize that it’s ok to ask for help,” says Southworth. “So many people are experiencing difficulties and are asking for help for the first time right now.”

When inquires come in, 211 directs people to resources that can help, whether that is locally available masks like those provided by United Way of Midland County, to free emergency boxes of food like the ones provided by the Dow Bay Area Family YMCA, to assistance from The Heat and Warmth Fund (THAW) for utility assistance for essential workers meeting income requirements. 

“We have seen a decrease in requests and people reaching out to our contact line, says Sarah Kile, Executive Director of 211 Northeast Michigan. “With evictions currently on hold as well as temporary holds on utility payment lapses, we know that volume will increase again, we’re just not sure when it will happen.”

In the interim, 211 of Northeast Michigan has spent time on updating their database of support and resources, completed quality training, and worked on bringing additional volunteers up to speed on services. There is also statewide planning in the works for 211 throughout Michigan.

“We thought we would see another surge happen at the beginning of June, but so much of it depends on how Governor’s Whitmer is planning for the state to ramp up,” says Kile.

“It takes a strength to admit you can’t do it alone. We want to let people know it’s ok to ask for help in times of need,” says Kile. “And one of the nice things about 211 is that It’s confidential. We are available to call or text 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. So, people can find a time that works for them.”

If you or someone you know needs help, you can access resources from 211 of Northeast Michigan at https://www.211nemichigan.org/.