Unemployed? Underemployed? Here’s how to get help

For a long time, GRS readers have been requesting a list of resources for low-income families struggling to get by. I haven't put anything together because I don't know much about the subject. Fortunately, I know somebody who does. In this article, Donna Freedman lays out the nuts and bolts of finding help when you're in financial distress.

Plenty of people who once made a good living are joining the ranks of the poor and the working poor. They need help, but they're not getting it. Some are too proud to ask. Some don't know what kind of help is available because — you guessed it — they've never needed it before. Some are simply overwhelmed or paralyzed with anxiety or shame.

We all want to think that we can take care of ourselves. Pride is a terrific thing to have — until you're looking at a sick spouse or a utility shutoff notice.

Think about the basics: food, shelter, utilities, and healthcare. If the money you're bringing isn't enough, start looking for help. Agencies both public and private can help you feed yourself, make up the rent and keep the lights burning.

A Room of One's Own

The time to think about housing is not when you're close to losing it. Get proactive. If you got laid off tomorrow, would unemployment cover the rent? It's increasingly a landlord's market — suppose your rent goes up during a seasonal slowdown in your industry?

Make a list of options, such as:

  • Find a cheaper place, or look for co-operative housing.
  • Move in with a family member temporarily.
  • Take in a roommate.
  • Look for a job that will let you live rent-free, such as apartment house manager, live-in nanny, or personal care attendant for a person with a disability.

Federally subsidized housing does exist but it can take many months or even years to get it; in fact, some cities have closed their waiting lists. Sign up, but don't count on it. That's not negativity; it's reality.

Some states have rental assistance programs. Click here to see if there's one where you live.

Other groups offer it, too: Look in the “community services” pages in the front of the phone book for local and national agencies that offer rent help, as well as groups such as Catholic Charities (you don't have to be Catholic to apply), the Salvation Army and the American Red Cross.

See if your city has a 2-1-1 clearinghouse, which can clue you into rental assistance (and lots of other programs) as well as a list of shelters and/or churches that allow people to spend the night.

If there's no 2-1-1 (and even if there is) keep looking. Do an online search for regional and national services. You will likely find that some programs are swamped. But even if an agency can't help you it may be able to refer you to others. Ask, and keep asking.

Couch surfing should be your absolute last resort. Wear out your welcome and you are homeless that night. Do not rely on the kindness of friends, i.e., don't put them in the position of having to say n0 or to kick you out after a couple of weeks.

Cozy and Connected

If you anticipate trouble making your utility bills, call customer service and be candid about your situation. Say that you will make the biggest payments you can without depriving your family of food.

Contact your state's Public Utility Commission to find out if there's a moratorium on winter shut-offs. There may even be special rates for low-income residents, but you'll never know unless you ask.

Some social service agencies and churches provide short-term utility assistance: Ask and ye may receive. You should also check out the federal Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program.

Talk with a phone company representative about minimal service plans for low-income residents. Click here to see if there are other forms of assistance in your region. One program is Lifeline Across America, which provides either a free cell phone or a special rate on a landline. To learn more, click here.

If you can't afford Internet service, see if your local library has public-use computers. This is generally limited but might be negotiable; I visited a library where the one-hour daily limit was doubled because no one else wanted computer time.

Laptop owners: Many libraries now offer wifi. So do plenty of coffee shops and restaurants but policies vary, i.e., sometimes non-buying wifi users get asked to leave. Note: Your local McDonald's may be more tolerant. I've used the wifi at Mickey D's for a couple of hours after tossing my dollar-menu drink cup — for all they knew, I hadn't bought a thing.

Your Daily Bread

The less you spend on groceries, the easier it is to pay your other bills. Make it your business to locate food banks and soup kitchens in your area — and don't wait until the cupboards are bare.

Keep these things in mind, too:

    • Call ahead to see what you need in order to apply (e.g., state-issued ID, proof of current residence). Ask if you must bring your children's birth certificates.
    • An agency may offer toiletries, infant formula, clothing or even pet food. Be upfront about your needs.
    • Some food banks are affiliated with social service agencies that offer other help. A place near me, for example, has a biweekly health-care clinic and job search counseling.
    • You may or may not be given food the day you apply again, don't wait until the situation is desperate.

Ask if you can volunteer. It can help you feel better about accepting assistance. Besides, once you meet other food-bank clients you'll realize that it's not just you who's having a tough time. Because it isn't just you: One in eight Americans is food insecure, or lacking access to enough food, according to Feeding America.

To find food banks in your region, click here. Some places let you come by more than once a week, and you may be eligible to visit more than one location. Use them to the fullest in order to create a pantry of nonperishables. That way you'll always have something to eat, even if a sick child or an ice storm prevents you from getting to the food bank.

Two other food sources are the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps) and the Women Infants Children nutrition program. It can take a long time to get approved, so apply now. Just FYI: The book of coupons you had to tear out, in front of God and everybody, has been replaced by electronic benefit transfer cards. It looks like you're using a debit card. Nobody has to know.

Here's a long shot that might pay off for you: The Freecycle Network. I've seen things like baby formula, garden produce, tree fruit, cereal, and canned and dry goods up for grabs. If your region has a chapter, sign up.

For the Health of It

You should be proactive about health care, too. Just as you shouldn't wait for an eviction notice to seek rental assistance, don't wait until you're running a 103-degree fever to start looking up Department of Public Health in the phone book. (Assuming you still use a phone book.)

If you have health care coverage and get laid off, you can continue that insurance via COBRA. However, it could be cheaper to pay for private health insurance. Can't hack either one? See Liz Pulliam Weston's excellent survival guide for the uninsured.

Or seek out county/state public health and community health centers, which operate on a sliding scale basis. Click here to find the one nearest you. You can be treated for a sudden illness, get well-child care (including immunizations) and have ongoing health conditions such as diabetes or asthma monitored.

Other strategies:

  • Women can get some basic health care as well as gynecological exams at Planned Parenthood. Fees are sliding-scale (which might mean free if you're really broke). And since you might want to avoid adding to your family right now, ask for free condoms while you're there. Search for the nearest clinic by clicking here.
  • If you qualify, the Insure Kids Now initiative will help you get health and dental coverage for your young ones. Learn more by clicking here.
  • Uninsured minors can get vision tests and glasses through Sight For Students. The American Academy of Ophthalmology's EyeCare America offers free care to certain groups, including folks with glaucoma or diabetes.
  • Service clubs: Rotary sponsors health clinics in some areas. Your local Lions Club may offer help with eye exams, glasses or hearing aids.
  • Still got health insurance? Ask your doc for drug samples, whether that's a short-term antibiotic or a maintenance med. That's one less prescription you'll have to buy.
  • Generic meds can cost as little as $10 for a three-month supply at places like Wal-Mart and Target. Some drugs (e.g., prenatal vitamins, certain antibiotics) are actually free at Top Foods, Meijer and Publix.

Asking for cheap or free health care may feel embarrassing to you. You've paid taxes to keep these places going, and you'll pay taxes to keep them going once you're employed again. Suffering doesn't do anyone any good, and if you end up hospitalized you'll cost us all a lot more.

Just Answer the Questions

No matter which aid program you seek, you will be asked about a lot of stuff: marital status, personal assets, number of children, work history. The person doing the asking isn't picking on you. He's doing his job. Everyone who applies needs to be vetted.

It might feel like the end of the world to be in this position. Trust me: It isn't. It's just a very rough patch. There's not much you can do about the economy at large. What you can control is your reaction to where you are right now.

If you've cut your budget to the bone and still can't make it, set pride aside for a little while. When things get better you can give back. First, though, you need to survive.

Note: Donna Freedman won the Clarion Award for her work on MSN Money's Smart Spending blog. She now writes the Living With Less column at MSN Money, and she recently started her own site, Surviving and Thriving. I've mentioned her articles many times in the past, and she's even shared an article at GRS about why she fought to save three bucks. She chronicled her own hard times in a GRS Reader Story.

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