Sumter United Ministries preps for rise in people needing help after COVID-19


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Sumter United Ministries has been there for the Sumter community through thick and thin.

Not even a pandemic could stop the nonprofit from helping those in need, and staff members feel ready for what Executive Director Mark Champagne is calling the perfect storm.

"The unemployment rate just skyrocketed, and a huge amount of people just lost their jobs," Champagne said. "We know there's a ton of people that just aren't getting what they had."

According to Champagne, his staff is feeling anxious because they're normally busy with interviews for utilities, eviction notices, food and more, but the coronavirus has slowed them down to an uneasy pace.

"At some point, this thing has got to resolve. It's just pushing this big wave coming, and it's slowly moving," Champagne said. "You never know when it's going to hit or how it's going to affect you, but it's there."

Rather than playing the pandemic's waiting game, the ministry staff has been preparing for its impact on crisis relief, emergency shelters, construction work and more as life starts returning to some sense of normalcy.

"I think we're going to start seeing the eviction notices and the disconnects start to change," Champagne said. "It all depends."

With Gov. Henry McMaster slowly lifting state restrictions, Champagne has been watching the updates and staying in contact with local property owners and utility companies. He's doing his best to stay on top of the executive orders because if utility companies start running normally again and landlords start evicting residents, the ministry's crisis relief team will take the biggest hit.

"We're ready to go," Champagne said. "The community has been really good."

Champagne said financially, he feels they're ready for the tidal wave that could possibly come in thanks to the community's help. The ministry recently received a donation of $50,000 from a company, which will be a big help, but the amount of those affected by the coronavirus is still unknown.

"$50,000 definitely won't cover it all, but people have been pretty good," Champagne said. "The smaller numbers keep coming in."

He said the donations could easily go for $1,000-$1,500 to one family alone, depending on the circumstances. Champagne said he thinks the coronavirus has affected more financially now than the 1,000-year flood in 2015.

"We know the numbers are big; we just don't know what's going to be available to help them outside of us," Champagne said. "It's so hard to tell with this thing. This will be a little more labor-intensive for sure."

Champagne said they were barely hanging on during the flood, but they feel more prepared during the pandemic.

They will be able to continue conducting interviews for a total of 15 people per day, and they emptied out the waiting area and turned it into the temporary interview space. The staff will be conducting the interviews because they still can't bring in volunteers yet, but Champagne hopes that will change in the coming weeks.

Champagne isn't the only staff member who hopes volunteers will be returning to Sumter United Ministries. Matt Moore, construction ministry director, recently started operations again after he got a nine-person crew working on a roof on Wednesday for the first time since the beginning of COVID-19.

"We had a lot of projects going on," Moore said. "Because of the coronavirus, that's not happening. We're kind of in a place where we're backed up with all the work that we have."

According to Champagne, the first house Moore and his crew started working on was for a Sumter woman who has been living with a half-finished roof since the pandemic first affected the state because Moore had limited help.

"Even though the coronavirus is going on and we have to keep our distance, the reality is people still have homes that the water is pouring into," Moore said. "Now that we have an opportunity, we're taking it."

Sumter United Ministries was also given an opportunity to partner with the Combat Veterans Group in Sumter, which provided the emergency shelter department with a facility on North Wise Drive to house the homeless during the pandemic on Thursday.

Champagne said the ministry ran into a spacing issue, saying they could not safely shelter men and women in the dormitories they currently had after COVID-19 made its presence, but the temporary facility that was given to them will provide more space until Oct. 1.

Once the facility became available on Thursday morning, Travis Kinley, emergency shelter director, started moving bunks and other necessities into the new facility right away with the help of a life group from Alice Drive Baptist Church.

In one day, Kinley and the volunteers moved 80% of everything they needed into the temporary shelter.

"It's truly been great to see Sumter come together to help Sumter," Kinley said. "We are one of the only, if not the only, shelter in Sumter, and the homeless community was depending on us to find a solution."

Champagne said the ministry is more than prepared to take on the perfect storm. The staff has been planning and will continue planning for its impact every morning until the day it comes knocking on their door.

"We just don't want to get wet," Champagne said, "or blown away."