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Challenging Times

The Last Unemployment Check

Community-based programs are stepping to help when job loss benefits end.

It’s an astonishing number: 100,000.

By year’s end, 100,000 Michigan residents who already suffered through losing their jobs will run out of unemployment benefits. Even in a state numbed by economic struggle, it is a staggering blow to families and the system.

“I’m not sure we know what’s going to happen once … that last bit of income that people had is gone,” said Nancy Macfarlane, CEO of Community Action, one of 30 Michigan agencies that help the needy.

About 450,000 Michigan residents currently receive unemployment benefits averaging $314 a week, said Norm Isotalo, a spokesman for the Michigan Unemployment Insurance Agency. But with a state unemployment rate at 15 percent, claims are pouring in—almost 58,000 in June alone.

Jobless workers in Michigan can qualify for up to 79 weeks of unemployment. Legislation is pending in Congress to authorize a new 13-week extension and to continue other benefits through 2010.

When the unemployment checks stop, the safety net becomes essential.

Macfarlane’s agency, which covers four southwestern Michigan counties, is ramping up emergency assistance programs to help with housing, medical and other needs. But the aid is limited, Macfarlane said. It won’t pay mortgage or utility bills for months on end. It won’t put food on tables indefinitely.

To get ready for the expected surge in requests for help, the Michigan Department of Human Services is hiring 200 temporary workers and launching an online application system—for food assistance only—said spokeswoman Colleen Steinman.

She said anyone nearing the end of unemployment benefits should fill out the Michigan Assistance and Referral Service’s self-screening questionnaire. It’s an online tool that tells people which programs they may be eligible for.

DHS is often the first stop for people struggling to make ends meet, along with community action agencies like Macfarlane’s.

But, Macfarlane said, “it’s not like you go in and somebody hands you cash.” To get public help, you must document need. People can find the system “shocking and difficult” to navigate, she said, especially those who have never had to ask for assistance.

Janice Phillips, 53, of Detroit, received her first unemployment checks this summer after she was laid off as a disability claims manager. She knows the checks will stop someday. For now, she’s searching hard for a job and trying to stay positive, which is difficult in a state that has lost more than 750,000 payroll jobs since 2000.

Phillips worked for her previous employer for 32 years.

“This is the very first time I’ve ever been unemployed,” she said. “I’ve never been on a disability, never been sick ever a day in my life.”

In response to the crisis, AARP opened a new outreach center in Detroit in July. Located at 4750 Woodward Ave., it is one block south of the Detroit Institute of the Arts. People in need of assistance, or those interested in volunteering with the program, can call 313-832-6846 to make an appointment for a screening.

Anita Salustro, a consultant for the AARP Foundation, said volunteers can guide people to help for food, prescription drug, energy or phone bills and Medicare premiums.

Families can search for public benefits on their own by using AARP Foundation’s online screening tool Benefits QuickLINK to help them identify their eligibility for various public programs.

“The need is so great as people are dropping off unemployment rolls and needing to get these benefits,” Salustro said.

Butwill the resources be there? DHS’s caseloads have steadily increased, Steinman said. In June, a record 731,175 Michigan households received between $14 to $180 a month in food assistance, a benefit that is one of the easiest state programs to qualify for.

DeWayne Wells, president of Gleaners Community Food Bank of Southeastern Michigan, said his agency expects to distribute 35 million pounds of food in the fiscal year beginning October 1—about a 30 percent increase.

Bill Sullivan, director of the United Way for Southeastern Michigan’s 2-1-1 Call Center, said his staff stands ready to tackle all requests. They field 400,000 calls annually. This year for the first time, he said, food has overtaken utility assistance as the most requested need. Despite the growing strain on resources, “if you called me today, I can get you food,” Sullivan said with certainty. “This is what we have spent our lives preparing for. We do a lot of creative problem-solving.”

Kathleen O’Gorman is a freelance writer based in Royal Oak, Mich.

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