A Community Effort to Pay the Bills in Greenville
On a given day, the United Way of Greenville County used to field 50, maybe 60 calls from residents needing help. When the pandemic and its economic haymaker struck, call volume increased to 500 a day.
And it’s stayed there.
The calls come from wave after wave of Greenville residents who’ve fallen behind on utilities and rent bills. Meghan Barp, UWGC’s CEO, estimates that around 8,500 households in the county are in arrears for close to $8 million.
On a picture-perfect Friday afternoon in November, Barp and I visited some of the residents UWGC is helping get out of household debt. Over the summer, Federal CARES Act money to Greenville County got divvied up to businesses and agencies aiming to help residents weather the effects of business closures, job hiatuses, and temporary shutdowns; $1.2 million of that money went to UWGC, which had developed a plan to specifically help people stay in their homes and stay safe, said Deirdre Bowen, an AmeriCorps staffer through the United Way.
“We wanted them to have no barriers,” Bowen said. Some callers, like the retired veteran who went six weeks without water, found barriers at every other turn – either he didn’t qualify for assistance paying his bills or he made too much money from his pension to be considered.
Bowen said UWGC wanted to help people out of that no-man’s-land, where they have little money, but it’s somehow too much to qualify for aid to keep them afloat.
Barp and I visited with residents like Barbara Pollard, who needed help transferring utilities accounts to her name. She didn’t know how to do it, so she called the United Way’s County Resource Line (set up as a direct response to the COVID-19 situation). Barp personally drove to Pollard’s home to help her with the paperwork.
A second woman who did not want to talk on the record has suffered several setbacks in her finances and her health since the pandemic began. She’s had almost no visitors in months, including her children, because contracting COVID would likely be severe for her. She’s been home, isolated, with barely any money coming in. When Barp told her the United Way would be helping with the rent, the woman cried; she gets to keep her apartment for a while longer.
Pelissa German has been out of work too. German has had Crohn’s disease, a digestive disorder, since childhood. It keeps her from being able to work a lot of jobs that would be especially stressful (stress aggravates Crohn’s). And the pandemic has squelched her ability to find other work.
“So I’ve just been home,” she said.
Crohn’s also demands a careful diet. The problem for German is that while she gets unemployment assistance, she doesn’t qualify for food stamps that would help her pay for items like Ensure drinks that her doctor recommends.
“Those … are $21 a box,” she said. “If you want me to drink three or four [every day], I can’t afford that.”
The stress of trying to pay for groceries has, of course, aggravated her condition, as has the additional stress of falling behind on her apartment rent. UWGC is helping her pay some back rent.
“It means a lot to have help,” German said. “I feel blessed.”
UWGC has been partnering with other agencies to get assistance to residents facing otherwise ugly possibilities as winter closes in. That includes work with utility companies themselves. An early partner in the United Way’s current project was Duke Energy.
Company spokesman Ryan Mosier said Duke suspended shutoffs before there was a statewide moratorium; the company’s own moratorium lasted into October. Along the way, Mosier said Duke worked with UWGC to help it to both write up the application to tap into the county’s CARES money and to help get the word out that help would be available to residents in need.
Duke has also helped expand the 2-1-1 hotline that funnels into the United Way, to cover areas of the state that previously had not had it, as an offshoot of the UWGC project.
Barp said the effort to reach people is too monumental for just her agency – even as UWGC has expanded its staff to meet the surge in caller volume. So the agency is in touch with corporations, landlords, and other businesses and services agencies to help work out plans to keep people at home and to let more people know help is available.
Both Barp and Mosier say the best way to get help is to make a call, however. Mosier encourages Duke customers to call and work out a payment plan; Barp encourages anyone who’s fallen on hard times because of everything going on this year to call 2-1-1.
Addendum: Greenville Water public relations manager Emerald Clark stated in an email: "We continue to support our customer’s needs with payment arrangements if they contact us to set them up. We’ve also shared agency lists with customers in need that supports community residents with utility bill assistance."
A company press release about its work with the United Way is available here.
Scott Morgan is the Upstate multimedia reporter for South Carolina Public Radio. Follow Scott on Twitter @ByScottMorgan. Follow South Carolina Public Radio @SCPublicRadio and on Facebook.