2-1-1 answers a mother’s call for help
As a child, Carolyn Byrd dreamed of becoming a postal worker – following in the footsteps of her father as he delivered mail door-to-door.
She loved seeing him in his navy-blue uniform – a source of pride for Carolyn and her siblings. But it was more than the attire or the idea of distributing mail that piqued her interest. It was the ability to have a “good job” that could support a family.
At 17, with a child of her own, Carolyn put aside thoughts of her dream career and worked a variety of jobs to make ends meet as her family grew.
Decades later, the 62-year-old mother of four works as a housekeeper at a Detroit nursing home where her annual salary is $28,000 – above the poverty line for a single adult but less than needed to get ahead.
In 44 percent of households in our region, families are forced to choose between basic needs like food and health care or rent payments and transportation.
As part of our mission to create stable households and communities where children can thrive, United Way for Southeastern Michigan supports organizations and services that help families meet their basic needs and work toward financial stability.
“I’ve been at my job almost 20 years,” Carolyn said. “I still don’t always make enough to pay my bills and save much.”
“I didn’t know where to turn for help but 2-1-1 answered the phone and talked me through exactly where to go. It was awesome.”
Last April, with the COVID-19 pandemic ravaging much of the country, and afraid of what might happen if she contracted the virus, Carolyn began working reduced hours.
“Our residents were dying,” she said. “We lost at least 30 people. A lot of my coworkers were sick. I have preexisting conditions – diabetes and high blood pressure. I didn’t want to catch COVID and end up dead.”
The time off would cost her. Without the ability to work overtime, Carolyn fell behind on her bills. While she prioritized paying her rent, utility payments fell behind and late notices began arriving. If nothing changed, she feared she might soon lose her power.
“It was a stressful time, for sure,” Carolyn said.
When a friend told her about 2-1-1, United Way’s free and confidential helpline, Carolyn didn’t hesitate to call. And she’s not alone. In 2020, 2-1-1 handled more than 114,000 calls for food, housing, financial assistance, utility assistance and more – an increase of 46 percent over the previous year. Requests for utility assistance have increased by 15 percent.
“So many people are struggling,” said Tasha Ball, 2-1-1 data and performance manager at United Way for Southeastern Michigan. “That was true even before the pandemic and it’s truer now.”
Tasha knows what is like to be on both ends of a 2-1-1 call. Long before she began working for 2-1-1, she made a call for help herself.
“I was out of work for the first time in my whole life,” Tasha said, reflecting on what she calls an exceedingly difficult period. “I didn’t know where to turn for help but 2-1-1 answered the phone and talked me through exactly where to go. It was awesome.”
Encouraged by the initial conversation, Tasha wanted to do for others what had been done for her.
“I remember not feeling judged,” she said. “The person who answered my call had empathy and compassion.”
Carolyn agreed, saying her experience with 2-1-1 was unlike what she had previously encountered when reaching out for help.
“They were very helpful; telling me exactly what I needed to do and really trying to understand my situation,” she said.
For the first time in a long time, Carolyn could breathe a sigh of relief. Help was on the horizon.
At the end of 2020, Carolyn, who has worked as a housekeeper at a Detroit nursing home for nearly 20 years, received a 50-cent raise that was three years in the making.
Perhaps now the 62-year-old would be able to afford to fill the full prescription for her blood pressure medication or buy a few extra groceries for the month. Maybe she would be able to gift her granddaughter the new doll she had her eye on. Still, it wouldn’t be enough to keep her utilities on.
For thousands of people like Carolyn, the COVID-19 pandemic was a tipping point. In 2020, unemployment in Michigan soared to 22.7 percent – a record high, according to Michigan Department of Technology, Management and Budget. Businesses closed. Schools and child care centers shuttered, leaving many parents no option but to stay home to care for minor children.
Concerned about her health due to her age, race and preexisting conditions, Carolyn made the difficult decision to work reduced hours. Soon, she fell behind on her utility payments. With her past due balance growing and another bill for $340 laying on the dining room table awaiting payment, she reached out to the 2-1-1 helpline for assistance.
During her initial intake call, Carolyn was instructed to apply for State Emergency Relief (SER). Once approved, she was enrolled in DTE’s Low-income Self-Sufficiency Program (LSP), which allows qualified families to make low monthly payments based on income.
Her monthly bill was reduced to $130 – an amount she could comfortably afford. The remaining portion of her energy bill and arrears would then be paid with Michigan Energy Assistance Program (MEAP) funds.
“I was so relieved,” Carolyn said, feeling like she may finally be able to get ahead.
Carolyn built an instant rapport with her care coordinator. The conversation was easy as they discussed additional programs she may be eligible for. Each 2-1-1 care coordinator has access to a statewide database of more than 30,000 resources that are continually updated.
“When someone calls us for help, we always look at the bigger picture to gain an understanding of the household and the challenges they face,” said Chris Taylor, MEAP operations/community partners manager at United Way for Southeastern Michigan. “While utility assistance is the only direct service program we provide, our teams work hand-in-hand with our partners for things like employment assistance or housing assistance. We ask a lot of questions and use that information to make strategic referrals.”
United Way’s wraparound approach has proven especially important during the COVID-19 pandemic.
As the go-to resource for community members in need, our 2-1-1 helpline received an unprecedented number of calls. Over the course of a year and a half, our team made 241,029 referrals to partner agencies – more than any other time in the 20-year history of 2-1-1.
Although very few people have gone completely untouched by the COVID-19 pandemic, Black Americans have borne the brunt of the impact – losing jobs, falling ill, and even dying at rates much higher than the rest of the population.
In April, at the height of the pandemic, Black Michiganders were 133 percent more likely to catch COVID-19 than their white counterparts, according to data from the Brookings Institute. At the same time, Black Americans have faced higher rates of unemployment due to historic systemic inequities that have left Black workers at a disadvantage. And, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a disproportionate number of front-line or essential workers who face the greatest risk for COVID-19 infection are Black.
These disproportionate impacts reflect deeply engrained inequities in education, employment, housing, and health care that the ongoing crisis has exacerbated.
Carolyn, who is Black, said families like hers – who work hard but still struggle – were faced with an impossible choice: Go to work and risk your health or stay home and risk your livelihood.
“I wish more people would know what it’s like to walk in our shoes,” she said. “Then they’d understand that we need more support programs and we need more relief from COVID. It’s still not over.”
Carolyn lives with her adult son on a tree-lined street on Detroit’s west side. The square, single-family homes are all similar. And in many cases, so are the inhabitants’ struggles.
In Detroit, the median income is $30,894 – almost half the average income across the rest of the state. Poverty rates are high. And even those who earn wages that fall above the poverty line often have a hard time making ends meet.
In Detroit, 74 percent of households have income that falls below the ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) threshold established by United Way’s ALICE report. These households have been hit hard during the COVID-19 pandemic – becoming more likely to get the virus, lose a job and experience additional economic and health-related hardship.
Black households are more likely to be ALICE, and 60 percent of Black Michiganders struggle to meet their basic needs. In a city like Detroit where nearly 80 percent of the population is Black, many households are either already in crisis, or very close to it.
“It’s crazy how much money you have to spend to get to a job. That (transportation) can end up being a big part of your check. But if you don’t pay to get to work, you don’t get paid. It’s like a cycle where you never get ahead.”
With her utilities fixed at the lower rate for the next two years, Carolyn can save for a rainy day. She has already been able to purchase a newer, more reliable vehicle – a Saturn Vue – and is saving money on daily Lyft service to and from her job.
“It’s crazy how much money you have to spend to get to a job,” she said. “That (transportation) can end up being a big part of your check. But if you don’t pay to get to work, you don’t get paid. It’s like a cycle where you never get ahead.”
As part of her LSP enrollment, Carolyn received a free DTE home energy audit. The technician installed energy-efficient lightbulbs, a new kitchen faucet, showerhead and thermostat that will reduce her energy costs over time.
MEAP care coordinators are searching for additional resources in Carolyn’s area to help her save more of her income.
“We know that with help and opportunity, ALICE households can improve their situations and create long-term financial stability. That is always our goal,” Chris said.
“There’s help out there. Things aren’t hopeless – even if they seem that way for a while.”
The MEAP team works closely with DTE – joining weekly calls to identify trends and proactively reaching out to people with past due accounts that may need help.
More than 16,000 households were enrolled in LSP in 2020. DTE anticipates continued need, and possibly increased enrollments, throughout 2021 as the ongoing pandemic intensifies hardship among low-income families.
“We’ve certainly seen more people falling behind,” said Sakinah Howard, customer strategy manager on DTE’s Low Income Experience Team. “Fortunately, customers are taking advantage of the programs that are out there to help them keep their power.”
Prior to the pandemic, the DTE and MEAP teams operated multiple in-person sites across the state and frequently attended in-person events to build awareness. With staff now working from home, the methods have evolved but the goal remains the same: Help as many people as possible.
“It really is a partnership and we work closely together to determine how we can best help residents,” Sakinah said.
Sitting at the wooden table in the rental house she has called home for the past eight years, Carolyn appears relaxed.
Her youthful appearance shows no signs of her recent hardships or stress. The oppressive weight of past-due bills no longer grates on her conscience or keeps her up at night.
When families like Carolyn’s aren’t worried about keeping the lights on or trying to figure out where their next meal is coming from, there’s room to dream a little bigger.
Coronavirus is still a concern, but things are looking up. As an essential worker, she will soon be eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine. Her 36-year-old son, who moved in with her last year after pandemic-related job loss, received a new job offer through the MEAP department’s employee referral pilot, and will be soon be working 37 hours a week.
Carolyn is looking to the future – thinking of putting money toward retirement, perhaps buying a home instead of renting, and embracing more moments with her grandchildren.
She encourages other people experiencing hardship to pick up the phone and dial 2-1-1.
“There’s help out there,” she said. “Things aren’t hopeless – even if they seem that way for a while.”
Our 2-1-1 hotline is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. To learn more about how 2-1-1 is making an impact, click here.