Aid demand spreads out as Waccamaw Economic Opportunity Council shuts down

Some Horry County charities are reporting dramatic increases in requests for aid as a result of the troubles at Waccamaw Economic Opportunity Council, the federally-funded aid organization that has shut down most of its operations because it has no money to pay employees.

Daryl Kangarloo, regional coordinator for Catholic Charities of the Pee Dee, said her agency has seen well over a 50 percent increase in the number of people seeking assistance with utility bills. And Brenda Ryan, director of social services for The Salvation Army, said the number of daily calls for help have doubled in the last month, with most of the increase coming from former clients of Waccamaw EOC.

Conversely, Sister Josephine of St. Cyprian's Catholic Church in Georgetown and Adrian Weatherwax, director of Helping Hand of Myrtle Beach, said aid requests have not bounced upward because of the EOC's problems.

The additional requests come at a bad time for the charities as the economy had already created more demand and fewer contributions.

The Waccamaw EOC's troubles first surfaced in an audit of the program by the S.C. Office of Economic Opportunity that found problems with board members, including some it said were improperly elected and some who interfered in the agency's day-to-day operations.

Board members at first refused to turn e-mails over to the state and resisted state requests for interviews. Board members did not show up at a training session scheduled for them last weekend, with one saying that she had baseball tickets she did not want to go to waste.

The state placed the agency on a reimbursement status, meaning that it would not get any of the funds designated for it until the agency first paid for services. That created a financial hardship on the agency because it was not set up to get money as reimbursement but as up-front funding.

The state has announced that it intends to terminate the agency's grant funding agreements, which would strip it of the funds for everything but Head Start and a summer feeding program. It sent the agency an e-mail Wednesday that gave officials 21 days to request a hearing that would preclude any state action.

The agency receives about $15 million in federal grant funding - passed first through the state office - and serves thousands of residents in Horry, Georgetown and Williamsburg counties.

Ryan said the trouble at Waccamaw EOC has doubled the daily calls for aid to The Salvation Army from 25 to 35 earlier this year to between 50 and 70 now. The increase began a month to 1 1/2 months ago, which may have been reflective of a deliberate slowdown in funding by the EOC.

"We can't help everybody," she said.

Beth Fryar, executive director of Waccamaw EOC, said the agency began to try to reduce the amount of aid it committed to because officials feared the situation would devolve exactly as it has. That undoubtedly added to the pressure on other aid agencies, but Fryar said it also allowed the EOC to close down some operations and not leave any jobs half-done.

The agency provided weatherization and low-income heating help, among other things, to those who qualified.

Ryan said The Salvation Army has at various times this year been able to help people with rent and utilities assistance and, so far, with needed food and clothing at all times.

Kangarloo said Catholic Charities will pay the last $50 of utility bills as it can, but only has $50 a day to do so. She said the agency encourages clients to get the remaining money for utility bills from friends and relatives, and additionally works with them on other assistance they may need, such as for prescriptions.

"We prefer to work with people on a long-term basis," she said.

Catholic Charities and many other aid organizations don't have the kind of steady, federal government funding as is available to Waccamaw EOC. Kangarloo said that because of troubles at the EOC, the number of people walking in to seek help with utility bills has gone from about seven a day to 14 to 20 a day now.

"It's putting a huge strain on us," Kangarloo said, "because we don't have the money to pay utility bills."