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Mulvaney’s office, United Way team up to free aid for Fort Mill poor

This is how it works when you are broke in the worst recession in a generation and the landlord wants his rent and the utility company wants its payment.

You either pack your kids and live in a tent, or sleep in the dark and cold - or you go to the charities that give out emergency assistance and hope you are poor enough and - most importantly - that there is money at the charities to give.

Much of what these places give out is donations, but some places depend on federal money - tax money - too.

Well, if you live in Fort Mill and are poor and in danger of being thrown into the street or into a cold, dark night, there is no federal money yet.

But thanks to quick action Wednesday by U.S. Rep. Mick Mulvaney's office, coupled with the efforts of local United Way officials, Fort Mill should have its share of money by Monday.

Normally the FEMA Emergency Food and Shelter Program money starts to come into local places that help real people during April.

But this year, political bickering over the federal budget by politicians of all parties who do not have their lights turned off or have to worry about rent delayed millions of dollars pegged for nonprofits across America until late September.

Clover Area Assistance Center and Salvation Army in Rock Hill both received money Oct. 4 and have started giving out assistance. Clover's need was so great that every penny it received - $19,500 - is gone already, officials with the United Way and Clover's center said.

Yet money slated for disbursement through the United Way of York County to people who seek help at the Fort Mill Care Center hadn't been approved because of what officials say was a problem with paperwork.

The national United Way has to approve that the money can be sent for the people of Fort Mill through the United Way of York County. Fort Mill Care Center is scheduled to receive a total of $29,000 - half earlier this month, half next month.

"We are just waiting for that money because we have people who need it," said Hugh Mullis, director of the Fort Mill Care Center, early Wednesday morning.

That didn't seem good enough. The poor who are on the verge of eviction or darkness do not have time to wait.

Turns out the United Way found out a couple of weeks ago that the wrong nonprofit identification number needed for disbursement was submitted. Local officials sent in the correct information but it had not yet been processed as of early Wednesday, said Elizabeth Starnes, finance manager for the United Way of York County.

I called Eric Bedingfield, chief of staff for Mulvaney's Rock Hill district headquarters. Bedingfield investigated and called the controller's office of the United Way Worldwide Wednesday afternoon. In a conference call with a top financial officer for the national program and local United Way officials, the correct identification number was provided.

The handling of tens of thousands of requests from local places needing money to help the poor had transitioned from one computer system to another in the last couple of years, Bedingfield said, and the new database did not have the correct information.

Newer requirements for security and accountability now require a specific identification number for all nonprofits that receive the money.

"It appears we have fixed the problem and the money should be here late this week or at the latest by Monday," Bedingfield said late Wednesday.

The required information was entered late Wednesday by United Way Worldwide officials, and the money for Fort Mill should be available next week, FEMA officials in Washington confirmed Wednesday evening.

Starnes, the financial officer for the local United Way, said she is confident the problem, a clerical error, is fixed.

It appears that this was a problem with no villains. When local people found out why something was wrong, they called Washington and fixed it. Problem solved, money to come to the poor, with the help of a congressional office and the local United Way.

Mullis, the Fort Mill Care Center director, said late Wednesday after talking with Bedingfield from Mulvaney's office, that he is thankful for the action taken.

"I hope that soon we can get that money to those who need it," he said.

And out there in York County, people need it. More than $170,000 was awarded to York County for this year, and allotments are based on average unemployment and poverty statistics.

You do not need to be a statistician to know that York County's unemployment rate is as bad as it has been in decades, and more people are living in poverty than in past years.

Half of the money is here now, with Fort Mill's pending, but the other half will arrive in November, Starnes said.

Clover, having spent $19,500 on the poor's bills already, will get another $19,500.

"And we sure need it," said Karen van Vierssen, executive director. "Need is higher than ever."

Those people who are desperate show up at places such as the Salvation Army, where $49,421 came to help the poor, with the same amount expected in November.

Those people who showed up for help Wednesday proved that government programs that help the poorest are not Web sites and grants and bureaucracies.

They are the difference between light and dark, cold and heat. They have no political party.

Dozens have shown up in the past week at the Rock Hill Salvation Army on Charlotte Avenue.

"We haven't taken a breath in more than a week," said Keisa Shannon, social services director for the branch.

Checks for those who qualify are sent directly to utility providers, a landlord or mortgage company, the gas company - to whomever the bill is owed. Needy people never hold a single penny.

"The need is much higher than ever," said Maj. John Edmonds, who runs the local branch. "The company that is owed money gets a check. We do not give out money."

Sometimes people line up in the dark hoping for help.

On Wednesday, a 54-year-old named Teresa Owenby from York came in with the aid of a walker. She is unemployed because she is disabled. Her disability check can't keep up with her utilities. Her disconnect date is today, with an amount due of $222.05.

"I worked in textiles for years, did office work," Owenby said. "But I can't anymore. I even volunteered for the United Way."

The same United Way that helped make the money available she was seeking.

In another room sat Laura Bowman, 38, with two kids at home and a back brace covering her body.

"Fell while cleaning gutters - broke my back," Bowman said. "I always worked, but I can't now."

Her light and heat bill is $360 she does not have. She waited in a back brace so two kids did not have to come home from school to darkness.

Waiting for service stood Fonda McCullough, with three kids and a job assisting the disabled that doesn't pay enough for all bills.

"My kids have to eat before I can pay the light bill," she said. "And my rent is $650."

Her disconnect, looming Friday, is $358.

What happened Wednesday is money that was frozen by a clerical error, a single number in a computer file in Washington, D.C., was freed from a glacier of bureaucracy.

Soon the Fort Mill counterparts to people just like Teresa Owenby, Laura Bowman and Fonda McCullough will have a chance to keep the lights on for their kids to read by - and a warm house for at least one more month.

Need help?

These agencies are helping people through the FEMA Emergency Food and Shelter Program. Call ahead, as hours vary. All agencies require identification, proof of residency and delinquent bills, and other documentation.

Salvation Army - 119 S. Charlotte Ave., Rock Hill, 803-324-5141. Hours: 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Thursday; closed 12-1 p.m. for lunch.

Fort Mill Care Center - 513 Banks St., Fort Mill, 803-547-7620. Hours: 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday

Clover Area Assistance Center - 1130 S.C. 55 East, Clover, 803-222-4837. FEMA assistance for Clover is gone for October, but the next disbursement is expected in November.