Andrew Dys

Project Hope helps residents cope with rising utility rates

People start to gather on the porch an hour before the doors at Project Hope in Rock Hill. The name of the place is Hope, and that’s what it provides for dozens of people with electricity bills so big, they should carry the envelope in a wheelbarrow.

The Rock Hill City Council, on advice from city management – all people who don’t have to worry about the lights being cut off – just raised utility rates for the 13th year in a row. Rates have gone up more than 30 percent in that time. The city says it must pay for the electricity it buys, and the rate increases pay for that.

On the steps of the porch at Project Hope last week sat a brick mason and farmer whose back is 74 years old, so it is as stiff as a brick wall. He can’t pay his light bill.

He sits next to Minnie Patterson, 80, who worked all her life. Her electric bill for a single month is $162.46.

“I don’t have it,” Patterson said.

Patterson is asked if the city asked her if she could afford 13 straight years of rate increases.

“No, they just send the bill in the mail and it goes up every time,” Patterson said.

Patterson’s house, without electricity and her tiny air conditioner, would be as hot as the gates of hell.

Robert Dean Thompson shows a bill of $350, $190 of it overdue.

“I can’t pay what is past due, let alone what is now due,” Thompson said. “So it is all overdue.”

The people on the porch sag from the weight of being poor. Some are unemployed, some are retirees. Some, such as Melina Saint-Pierre, have jobs.

Saint-Pierre, 30, works in a hospital janitorial division and is raising three kids as a single mother. She is an immigrant from Haiti.

Her life in Rock Hill, so far away from the poverty of Port-au-Prince, is an electric bill of $1,236. More than $865 is past due.

“I work, but I have a car to pay for, insurance, child care – I can’t catch up,” Saint-Pierre said. “Rock Hill raised the price again. They should not be doing that.”

Her bill was due Monday. She was at Project Hope, filled with hope, on Thursday.

The word “disconnect” on the bill looms for Saint-Pierre like a Caribbean hurricane.

The doors at Project Hope open and there comes hope, in the form of an army of volunteers.

The nonprofit charity staffed by more than 60 volunteers has helped people for 40 years. It has given out millions in utility help and food over that time.

Every week, Project Hope gives out about 5,000 pounds of food. With every dollar donated, it buys 11 pounds of food through a food bank.

Each year it gives out more than $100,000 in utility, rent and other assistance. In 2014, Project Hope helped almost 11,000 adults and children.

All the money that comes in as donations from people and churches. Project Hope gives out no cash, it makes payments directly to utility providers.

The people at Project Hope are not city workers or politicians. Every one is a volunteer. They are white and black and Hispanic, and they come from churches of every faith. Baptists work right next to Orthodox Church members.

“We just help people the best we can with all we can,” said Bo Coleman, the longtime executive director.

Project Hope has seen about a 20 percent increase in clients. The resurgent economy talked about by politicians and talking heads on CNN, FOX News and CNBC hasn’t helped the poorest, the oldest, the chronically broke.

Rock Hill utility customers and businesses can donate to Project Hope through their utility bills, said Stokes Mayfield, a volunteer and board member of Project Hope.

“People can and do help others through their city bills,” Mayfield said. “It really makes a difference. We hope that the expansion to the business community helps those in need, too.”

So, every Monday through Thursday morning at Project Hope comes the daily porch dance.

Early arrivals grab a place to sit and later arrivals stand, until volunteers throw open the doors of hope.

Andrew Dys •  803-329-4065 •

Want to help?

▪ Rock Hill utilities customers and businesses can donate monthly to Project Hope through their utility bills, with all money going to help the needy. To enroll in the program, call the city collections department at 803-325-2500.

▪ For information on other ways to help Project Hope, call 803-230-3401.