THAW offers hand up with energy bills, not a handout

April 29, 2016
| By Pat Evans |
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Mark Lane likes it when he hears people say they hope never to see him again.

Lane is the director of communications for THAW — The Heat and Warmth fund — a nonprofit dedicated to paying the utility bills of those in need, as long as their income qualifies at 150 percent or less of the poverty rate.

When Lane hears those words, it means THAW has done its job — and 80 percent of the time, it holds true.

“They need a hand up, not a handout,” Lane said.

In the nonprofit’s more than 30 years in Michigan, it has distributed more than $160 million to help more than 223,000 households. Last year, the fund contributed more than $16 million in utility assistance to more than 23,000 homes.

Many of those houses, however, are in Southeast Michigan, and Lane and COO Matthew Phillips were in Grand Rapids last week to help further establish THAW’s roots in West Michigan.

On April 22, THAW held a Customer Assistance Day at the Diocese of Grand Rapids, with more than 350 registered customers hoping for assistance. THAW also offers an online application.

Phillips said 70 percent of the households include a child or senior, but there are no limits to the number of people in a household, even if it’s just one person struggling to pay the bills.

For the most part, THAW concentrates on light and heat, but occasionally will assist in water payments. Those seeking help must provide necessary proof and identification, and once verified, THAW sends payments to in-danger or already-ceased accounts within 10 days. The customer receives a letter notifying them of a zero balance.

“We hope paying off the balance allows them to get back on their feet,” Lane said.

THAW has partnered with more 70 agencies throughout the state, including 19 in West Michigan, to facilitate applications and provide “wraparound” services: “Anything we can do to help bring people closer to being self-sufficient,” Phillips said. “If we just pay the bills and they don’t have a job or are in other debt, then they’re still in trouble. A lot of the people just don’t have enough to make ends meet.”

THAW doesn’t only help the unemployed; 51 percent of households assisted are working families.

THAW’s partners include Consumers Energy and DTE Energy. Both companies provide THAW with a list of customers whose accounts are in jeopardy so the nonprofit can reach out directly to them.

The energy companies also accompany THAW during its Customer Assistance Days — it held more than 50 last year — and run educational programs on how to reduce energy and save costs, and also talk to those who are unemployed about potential jobs within the organizations.

DTE also offers the ability to go to customers’ homes and perform free energy audits, install programmable thermostats and replace light bulbs.

Walker Miller Energy also has a presence during Customer Assistance Days, providing packages aimed at reducing energy consumption that include pipe wraps, LED light bulbs and low-flow showerheads.

“While people are waiting, they get an education on energy savings,” Phillips said.

THAW is funded by government grants, public and corporate support. Knowledge of the program in West Michigan is lagging behind that in Southeast Michigan, and Phillips wants to change that.

Lane said a Customer Assistance Day held in Muskegon in December only had an attendance of approximately 45 people.

“There are a lot of vulnerable people in Muskegon, and we want them to know THAW is here and here to help,” he said. “There is someone out there for them when they’re in crisis.”

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