Seven months into the coronavirus pandemic, the economic forces that left thousands of Upstate residents jobless or underemployed are taking a toll on those on the edge of poverty.
In Greenville, where more than 8,000 Greenville County households owe a combined $4 million in unpaid utility bills, the United Way of Greenville County has received $1.2 million from Greenville County's $91 million allotment of federal coronavirus relief funds to help customers who have fallen behind on bills and are at risk of having their power or water service shut off.
The United Way has launched a new initiative, "Keep the Lights On," that will work in collaboration with Duke Energy, Greenville Water and Greenville County to provide assistance to those on the brink.
"The impact of COVID-19 on employment and the ability to afford basic resources has been extreme," said Meghan Barp, president and CEO of United Way of Greenville County, in a press release. "Many of our neighbors cannot afford to keep up with past and current bills and now face the prospect of losing these vital services. With winter approaching and thousands of students relying on internet services for e-learning, it is critical that we do all we can to help."
The announcement comes days after The Post and Courier reported that Greenville County is facing increasing pressure from the community to disperse the trove of money it received from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act that was passed in late March and must be used by the end of the year.
Initially, the county dedicated $75 million, the vast majority of its allotment, to help small businesses recoup costs of utilities, rent and personal protective equipment incurred in response to the pandemic. When response from businesses was lower than expected, the county has slowly changed course.
In early October, the county shifted $16 million to public health projects but doesn't expect to be able to distribute all of its money by the end of the year deadline. If it isn't spent, the money reverts to the U.S. treasury.
County Administrator Joe Kernell told County Council last week projections show the county would be left with about $30 million unspent. County officials said they are counting on Congress to extend the deadline for the money to be spent, but that would be incumbent on a new stimulus package being passed. So far, Congress hasn't come to an agreement on a new deal.
With the clock ticking, nonprofits across the county have submitted applications for possible uses for the federal funding. The boost for United Way to help county residents comes as Duke Energy and Greenville Water have resumed disconnection of services for nonpayment, though each utility has said it will work with customers to set up payment plans to get bills back on track.
United Way also made a contribution of $150,000 from the $1.4 million it had raised from the community in its COVID-19 Community Relief Fund. The United Way also asked the community to contribute. To make a gift, visit unitedwaygc.org/lightson.
Anyone in need of assistance should call the United Way's community resource number by dialing 211.