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Trident United Way sees dramatic increase in 211 calls amid coronavirus pandemic

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Volunteer Amber Dufour and Alicia Duffany with the Lowcountry Food Bank distribute food at Revive Church on Remount Road on Thursday, April 2, 2020, in North Charleston. Since the rise of the coronavirus pandemic, Trident United Way has seen a dramatic increase in calls about resources like the Food Bank. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

With unemployment soaring because of the coronavirus, hundreds of people are calling into Trident United Way's 211 resource line to ask about food and rent assistance. 

At the end of March, calls for food assistance in Charleston County increased by over 800 percent compared with the first two weeks of the month. That was a growth from seven to 78 calls about food assistance. For Dorchester County, it increased by more than 300 percent. In Berkeley, it was up nearly 200 percent. 

The same has been seen with calls about rent assistance. Berkeley County saw an over 170 percent increase in those calls. In Dorchester and Charleston County, it was a more than 250 percent increase. In Charleston they saw 100 calls about rent assistance and 80 calls about electric payment assistance. 

All of this comes after the federal government announced 5.8 million people had applied for unemployment. More than 64,800 unemployment applications were filed in the last full week of March in South Carolina. 

Cathy Easley, Trident United Way's director of integrated community systems, said that any time there's a disaster or crisis that impacts South Carolina, they always see an increase in calls.

"Food is almost always the first need in any kind of disaster," she said. 

So the increase doesn't surprise her because they often see it with flooding and hurricanes. But every disaster is different, she said. So the direct needs are usually different. 

With the pandemic, it's a little early to predict what will happen in the long term, she said. But she knows that with the thousands of people who are unemployed there will likely be an impact. 

When things start to pick back up, many people will have utility and rent payments they will have to make up for. So she expects there will be people calling for resources that have never called before. Similar to there being people applying for unemployment for the first time. 

"That’s where we all need to band together as a community," she said.

The Lowcountry Food Bank, an agency that Trident United Way typically directs people to who ask about food, is now handing out more than 130,000 pounds of food in a week. Before the pandemic, it was typically around 100,000 pounds. 

Louis Smith is the creator and director of Community Resource Centers in North Charleston and Summerville. The centers he runs are some of the resources residents sometimes are directed to. The Community Resource Centers also get food from the Lowcountry Food Bank to give out to residents. 

Smith said they've also seen a noticeable increase in the number of people who receive their food. So they are in greater need of supplies. With the resources from the food bank, residents also often get supplies such as hygiene wipes, and diapers for babies and adults. 

“Right now we are looking at helping our community survive this unprecedented situation we are in," Smith said. “A lot of people with marginal income or no income at all need what we have to give them."

Trident United Way recently partnered with The Post and Courier to create the Tri-County COVID-19 Response Fund, to address rising needs in the community as a result of the pandemic. 

That fund has currently raised over $200,000 through donations from the public and corporate partners. Included in that amount is also a $50,000 match from Trident United Way.

The organization's CEO, Chloe Knight Tonney, said that what's going on now is not like a hurricane and is a longitudinal event. So since society is going to be in this for a while, she said they are going to have to continue to increase philanthropy. 

Before the pandemic, she said there was already a regular portion of the population that they were serving.  

"Now imagine that on steroids, because we have our friends, family members, neighbors now impacted by this," she said.

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Reach Jerrel Floyd at 843-937-5558. Follow him on Twitter @jfloyd134.

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