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Out in the Cold, She Calls 2-1-1

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Two days without heat and temperatures dropping 24 degrees below zero left Christine in crisis, pondering her options about how to survive inside her uninsulated trailer home in rural Oscoda County.

On a miserably cold day in February, the 62-year-old disabled school bus driver bundled up in not two, or three but four layers of clothing, and piled blankets over herself and the four pets she wouldn’t leave behind – a couple of cats and two small dachshunds.

Out of propane to heat her home, and out of cash to fill the tank, she was also out of state assistance. She reached her “cap” the month before in large part because of soaring fuel costs just as temperatures were plummeting to dangerous levels. “It was very stressful,” said Christine, who didn’t want to use her real name out of embarrassment.

“I don’t have a whole lot of money month to month. And there’s a lot of month left at the end of the money. Unfortunately, that’s when it hit,” she said. “It’s been a nightmare just keeping warm and keeping the pipes from freezing.”

Then Christine caught a break. A call to the home office of U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow produced an aide who suggested she call 2-1-1. Without even knowing who or what 2-1-1 was, Christine made the call and something remarkable happened.

The 2-1-1 certified Information and referral specialist she talked with assessed Christine’s circumstances. She checked area resources in 2-1-1’s comprehensive database of health, education and governmental services, and she consulted with her colleagues for some leads to get Christine some heat.

The specialist, Hollie Hawkins of 2-1-1 Northeast Michigan in Midland, said they scored when they reached TrueNorth Community Services in nearby Newaygo County. TrueNorth delivered the propane to Christine’s home that same day.

At $5 a gallon, propane has become scarcer and scarcer as the cold winter has dragged on, Hawkins said.

“She was very cold. The house was at 48 degrees inside. I had given her a shelter in case she needed to go, but of course, she didn’t want to leave her animals,” Hawkins said. “It took everybody in our office to use their contacts to get to the right person, to get her some propane.”

“I did follow up with a call to her the next day to make sure she was OK. Her animals were OK. And she was OK.”

Hawkins said her contact center, which serves a 20-county region, receives inquiries every day from people on fixed incomes whose propane tanks are near empty and they don’t have the money to fill them. A 500-gallon tank at such seasonably high prices could run $2,000.

“A lot of them are heating their homes with ovens, or space heaters,” Hawkins said. “They’re frustrated when they call because by the time they get to us they’ve called place after place after place. Because of our 2-1-1 data base, though, we’re able to send them to places where we’re pretty sure they have funding and where they (the caller) will meet the criteria.”

2-1-1’s  resource manager keeps in touch with community agencies and nonprofits in order to better direct callers. “If they’re out of funding or have new funding, they call us to let us know,” Hawkins said. 

When the senator’s office referred Christine to 2-1-1, Christine said she expected she’d find “another set of hoops to jump through” but instead she was pleasantly surprised by the courteous treatment she received.

“I was treated with such dignity. I never got the feeling anyone was looking down their nose at me. They were wonderful. I had a very positive experience, and wish more people knew about 2-1-1.”