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Washtenaw United: Addressing a growing need for heating and energy assistance in Washtenaw County and Southeast Michigan

United Way for Southeastern Michigan director of utility assistance Sean Scane.
United Way for Southeastern Michigan
United Way for Southeastern Michigan director of utility assistance Sean Scane.


Sean leads and coordinates the Michigan Energy Assistance Program (MEAP) team and activities of United Way for Southeastern Michigan. He has been with United Way for 8 years.

Formerly, he served as a political campaign organizer in North Carolina and Pennsylvania and was the Assistant to the Executive Director at Teach for America in Detroit.

Sean holds a bachelor's degree in public affairs from Wayne State University.


Michigan Energy Assistance Program (MEAP)

Utility Assistance Overview

Expand the Michigan Energy Assistance Program - United Way for Southeastern Michigan

Check Your Eligibility for MEAP


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and you may have noticed it's getting colder outside now. As we move toward and then into winter, we're going to have to turn up the heat. But for all too many, that simply is impossible. They can't afford it. I'm David Fair, and I'd like to welcome you to this week's edition of Washtenaw United. Income disparity means the heat gets turned off in a good number of households, and that tends to more dramatically impact communities of color. Where to turn and what to do? Well, that is a good question. And our guest today has some answers, but I'm sure you'll also agree there's a lot more work to be done. Sean Scane is director of utility services assistance at the United Way for Southeastern Michigan. And, Sean, thank you so much for the time today.

Sean Scane: David, thanks for having me. Really looking forward to speaking about this issue with you today.

David Fair: The program that you direct is the Michigan Energy Assistance Program, and some call it MEAP. How great do you assess the need for utility assistance, not only in winter but throughout the year?

Sean Scane: Yeah, absolutely. You know, we see it as being one of the top needs that people have throughout the entire year. But, during the winter season, it's absolutely the strongest need. You know, as the temperature starts decreasing, a lot of people are facing higher bills. We see more people falling behind, more people reaching out, calling our 211 line, asking for this assistance, which is so critical for so many families in our community.

David Fair: You served some 10,000 families in households with financial assistance. If there was actually a budget that would cover all who were in need. How many more families and households would you have to add?

Sean Scane: That's a great question. You know, we're doing a lot of research on that right now. But what we're finding now is that, even with the resources that are available, we're only scratching the surface. You know, typically, we see people, you know, when they start to fall behind and one area, and their finances are, you know, starting to become a little bit more strapped. Utilities tends to be one of the first things that they start to fall back on. So, for a lot of people, this is the first thing that they're reaching out to us for assistance. And it's really just such a critical need for so many households up out there. And as we get into the winter months here as well, it's just such an important resource for people to be able to access to avoid any kind of shutoff, to keep their heat on, to keep their lights on, and to have more stability within their household.

David Fair: In a very real way with extreme heat and obviously extreme cold, it can, for some, be a matter of life and death. I imagine there is a great sense of reward in the work you do when you do assist a family in getting the help they need. I also imagine that you have to carry a heavy burden for those you cannot.

Sean Scane: Absolutely. You know, it's the reason that I get up and do this work every day is that we have the privilege to serve, you know, the community and the people who come through the program and the households that we're able to serve and just the impact that we're able to have in that way. However, there are, you know, many households who are close to qualifying for this assistance and, currently, you know, do not. You know, they might be just slightly over that income threshold. So, we are advocating for expanding eligibility for the Michigan Energy Assistance Program--the MEAP program. And, you know, we believe that it's critical. There are so many families out there who are close to qualifying but who do not qualify who still need assistance.

David Fair: We're talking heating and utility assistance on 89 one WEMU's Washtenaw United. Our guest is the director of utility assistance at the United Way for Southeastern Michigan. His name is Sean Scane. And, Sean, if somebody gets to the point where they're calling 211, they may have already passed the desperate threshold. For those who do need utility assistance and call when that money is gone and the budget is exhausted, what happens when a resident calls and to whom or to where do you refer them? Or are they left on their own?

Sean Scane: Yeah, that's a great question. And, you know, when people call us and they're looking for resources and let's say that the money is exhausted for utility assistance funding, so when you call 211, we ask for your zip code. We look up the resources that are available in your area. You know, we call. We make sure that there are active resources. And we can share those with families. For instance, if somebody called for utility assistance and, you know, maybe for energy assistance, it's not available. Well, what about your water bill? Is there something we can do to help there? Or what about for rent or for food? And can we get you connected to other resources that might be able to help you in other areas to really help out your household and make sure that we can assist with that budget there?

David Fair: I'm really curious. The United Way for Southeastern Michigan has been serving Wayne, Oakland and Macomb Counties and, as of October 1st of this year, now serves Washtenaw County, too. In the merger with United Way of Washtenaw County, what did you learn about how much more assistance you're going to have to consider?

Sean Scane: Yeah, absolutely. You know, we're so excited for this merger with Washtenaw County. And, for the Washtenaw community, you know, really what it means is more. It's going to be more assistance. You know, we're going to be doing more outreach, making sure that there are more opportunities. Even through our Michigan Energy Assistance Program, we were already serving some households within Washtenaw County because we serve households statewide from southeastern Michigan.But, you know, we are looking at how do we keep on expanding access for households in Washtenaw County and how can we do more targeted outreach to ensure that households in Washtenaw County have the necessary access to this just critical resource here.

David Fair: So, once the immediate emergency is remedied and a bill has been paid and the heat stays on, my question is, is there help after that? Are there companion programs that help with learning out of budget, finding work and career placement and some of the other potential barriers that prevent this situation from reoccurring?

Sean Scane: Yeah, absolutely. And that is also a great question. We focus really big here at United Way on something in our program that we call success planning. And, with success planning, when somebody is enrolled into our program and they are approved, we help with those types of things. We look at energy consumption. How do we make your bill cost less over time? How do we reduce consumption in the home through structural and educational means? We look at how can we provide financial coaching and work on improving credit or increasing budgeting skills. We get people connected to employment training programs. We've helped people qualify for first-time homebuyer loans before. We helped people get new employment before. And another key piece of this is we look at, like I said earlier, a lot of people, the first time they're calling for utility assistance. When we're helping somebody with that utility assistance, we're looking at what other programs might you be eligible for and how do we get you connected to those programs to get the other necessary resources that your family might really need. So, we do a whole benefit review with people who are coming through our program. And it's really a critical piece of, you know, leading to more long-term stability. That financial assistance piece is critical for utility assistance. But, you know, we see this piece of it as equally as critical that we are setting households up for long-term success within our program and after the program as well.

David Fair: Once again, you're listening to Washtenaw United on WEMU, and we're talking with Sean Scane about the Michigan Energy Assistance Program offered through the United Way for Southeastern Michigan statewide and here in Washtenaw County. Is this another program that, through its governance, has suffered because of systemic inequity?

Sean Scane: Yeah, absolutely. You know, we have to acknowledge the impact that systemic inequity has had on our communities. And we see that these programs are really necessary in making sure that we are addressing barriers and systemic inequities, to make sure people have access to the resources that they need, to push back on a lot of what has happened to create these problems in the first place. So, absolutely. These programs are critical for helping just to start addressing some of that. Absolutely.

David Fair: You mentioned the need continues to grow, and the need for expansion of the Michigan Energy Assistance Program is also needed. What are the efforts underway to move towards that expansion?

Sean Scane: Yeah. Right now, there is a bill being debated, Senate Bill 353, that would look at increasing access for MEAP assistance--the Michigan Energy Assistance Program. Currently, the threshold for income is either at or below 150% of the federal poverty level. This would move that threshold to 200%. So, as I was saying earlier, we frequently see people who just fall a little bit above that 150% threshold. We believe that expanding access will allow many more families who still have these critical needs to be connected with this necessary assistance.

David Fair: Do you find that sometimes pride or ego stands in the way of someone reaching out and dialing 211 to ask for the help they really need?

Sean Scane: Yeah. You know, we do see that sometimes. And my message is these are our neighbors. These are community members. This is something that many households face. And I encourage anybody, if you start falling behind, this is something that we are here to help with. And, you know, there's no shame in reaching out. And we are here to assist. And I would encourage anybody, if you're falling behind or if you know somebody who's falling behind, give us a call. Call 211. See what resources are out there. There are a lot of people who want to assist in this situation.

David Fair: I want to thank you for taking the time and sharing the information today. Sean. I appreciate it.

Sean Scane: Oh, thank you, David. I appreciate you having me.

David Fair: Sean Scane is director of utility assistance with the United Way for Southeastern Michigan--our partner in this weekly conversation series we call Washtenaw United. For more information on heating assistance and where to turn, visit our website at WEMU dot org. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU-FM, Ypsilanti.


MEAP (Michigan Energy Assistance Program) is a statewide program providing assistance with energy bills.  United Way can provide MEAP assistance statewide. You can also dial 2-1-1 for all other types of assistance — including food, housing and rent.

Program Details:

  • UWSEM Care Coordinators will assist applicants with applying for State Emergency Relief.
  • Applicants will receive assistance in completing a self-sufficiency plan.
  • All applicants presenting to one of UWSEM’s MI Bridges sites will participate in energy education; other applicants will receive the information electronically.
  • All applicants will have the opportunity to schedule a success planning meeting with a Care Coordinator that will allow for more in depth financial coaching, employment coaching and benefit maximization
  • When available, applicants will be screened and recruited for various UWSEM-supported job training programs in various skilled trades industries.
  • Consenting applicants deemed eligible for MEAP will be enrolled into the appropriate Affordable Payment Plan/co-pay assistance offered by their utility company/UWSEM.
  • Additional information and details can be found on https://unitedwaysem.org/utility.

WEMU has partnered with the United Way for Southeastern Michigan to explore the people, organizations, and institutions creating opportunity and equity in our area. And, as part of this ongoing series, you’ll also hear from the people benefiting and growing from the investments being made in the areas of our community where there are gaps in available services. It is a community voice. It is 'Washtenaw United.'

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Contact WEMU News at 734.487.3363 or email us at studio@wemu.org

Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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