By Carol South
Special to the Record-Eagle
TRAVERSE CITY — A dozen local community leaders are taking to tents again.
The second annual Traverse City Sleep Out, scheduled for Tuesday evening through Wednesday morning, is intended to raise funds to help needy individuals and families meet spiraling energy costs.
Community members are encouraged to stop by the Open Space beginning Tuesday at 4:30 p.m. to make a donation to local organizations that help area low income residents with heating costs. Participating organizations include the Grand Traverse Area United Way, Goodwill Industries of Northern Michigan and the Father Fred Foundation.
Donations also will be accepted for the Coalition to Keep Michigan Warm, a statewide advocacy, education and aid group that supports energy assistance for Michigan's low income households.
In 2011, the first Sleep Out garnered $10,000. Organizers hope to exceed that amount this year. The total still represents "a drop in the bucket of the need that's out there," said Doug Luciani, president and CEO of the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce.
"It's a powerful way to send a message," he said of the Sleep Out event. "The purpose is to raise awareness in the community that times are tough. Plus, that there are programs out there to help, but even so these programs aren't enough."
The Father Fred Foundation's projected figures for 2012 show the need for utility assistance continues to climb in the sluggish economy. The foundation distributed $251,475 in emergency assistance in 2010. That figure rose 20 percent to $328,008 in 2011 and is projected to jump another 10 percent this year to $354,000.
During the most recent winter season covering November 1 through March 31, the Father Fred Foundation provided $133,000 in assistance to 688 families, an average of $193 per household.
"Bear in mind that there are shutoff and winter protection plans that spread utility payments throughout the year," said Jim Holwerda, Father Fred chaplain. "Indebtedness incurred in the winter months may not result in the threat of shutoff until spring or summer."
Representatives of local utility companies are on the Sleep Out roster, including Cherryland Electric Co-Operative, Traverse City Light & Power, DTE Energy and Consumer's Energy. The companies offer help for consumers to keep their heat on during financial difficulties.
A grant last year from DTE Energy purchased tents and sleeping bags for a dozen campers. The equipment then was donated the next day to Goodwill Inn, which distributed the items among area homeless people.
Families in need mean students in need. Local education representatives scheduled to participate in this year's Sleep Out including Steve Cousins, superintendent of the Traverse City Area Public Schools, and Mike Hill, superintendent of the Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District.
With 24,500 students in a five-county area under his jurisdiction, Hill is taking part in the Sleep Out effort in order to raise awareness about young people affected by poverty.
"I go into this thinking about students, too many in our five counties who struggle in this economy," he said. "We all know the research: when students come to school it has an impact on achievement if they're coming from an environment where they don't have a warm home."