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As temperatures begin to drop and forecasts of snow loom, the Coalition to Keep Michigan Warm is working to educate the public about options for energy assistance. With needs likely to outweigh funding from the state, it’s important to plan ahead.

If you or someone you know is concerned about difficulty paying energy bills this winter, the best way to get ahead is to contact the energy company to learn about payment plans that can help. Many companies have support systems in place to help customers avoid shut-off.

Groups like St. Vincent de Paul of Detroit also work to help income-eligible households that may be in danger of having their electric and heating utilities discontinued. St. Vincent de Paul was awarded $4.4 million from the 2015-2016 Michigan Energy Assistance Program. That funding will enable us to continue serving our neighbors well into the winter.

Consumers throughout Michigan can also call a free phone service, to find assistance, by dialing the numbers 2-1-1. Those behind on their energy bill can apply for help paying off past-due balances if their income is at or below 150 percent of the poverty level.

The two primary programs for energy assistance for those with income levels that qualify are the Michigan Energy Assistance Program (MEAP) and the Department of Health and Human Services’ (DHHS) State Emergency Relief program.

MEAP has already started accepting applications and is available as funding lasts. Thirteen organizations administer the program in different parts of the state. You can learn more at www.michigan.gov/energygrants.

DHHS’s State Emergency Relief crisis season runs through May 31. You can apply at your local DHHS office or online at www.mibridges.michigan.gov. Once an application and verifications are processed, customers should receive a notice within 10 business days letting them know the status of processing.

As always, senior citizens are protected from shut-off Nov. 1 through March 31. Even so, it’s a good idea to pay what you can and get assistance now to avoid larger bills later on. Not sure if you qualify as a senior citizen? Contact your energy company to find out.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the variety of programs in place, but reaching out to your energy company, a local partner or to Michigan 2-1-1 is a great way to get started. You’ll be connected with individuals who can help with navigating the path to energy assistance.

Bill Brazier is executive director at the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, a member of the Coalition to Keep Michigan Warm.

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