Concern, confusion rises about regional COVID-19 relief program

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, March 30, 2021

SALISBURY — Weeks after they sought aid from a COVID-19 relief program, people are raising concerns about its administration and wondering if they will receive much-needed help.

Hundreds flocked to St. Luke Missionary Baptist Church on Hawkinstown Road in January, waiting for hours at a time, after a coronavirus relief program was opened on Jan. 14. The program, held on Tuesdays and Thursdays, allowed people impacted by the pandemic to apply for up to $800 in funding on a first-come, first-served basis. While supplies lasted, eligible applicants also received a box of canned goods, produce and cleaning supplies.

In an interview with the Post in January, St. Luke Pastor Marcus Fairley called the program an “opportunity to be a blessing.” The need, however, appears to have outpaced the opportunity. And not everyone sees the program as a blessing.

Funding for the program

While the program was hosted at St. Luke Missionary Baptist Church, the funding for it came from the federal and state level. In August, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services was given a budget of about $37 million to provide assistance to organizations and people impacted by or responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The program was wide-reaching and provided aid in various ways, including direct payments to those who had to miss work or isolate due to COVID-19.

“We wanted to start up a program to be able to, one, help people be able to isolate or quarantine both for themselves and for public health, and two, to encourage people to get tested,” said Amanda Van Vleet, who worked to help design and manage the COVID-19 relief program on the state level.

To distribute the program across four of the hardest hit regions in North Carolina, the NC DHHS accepted competitive bids from agencies. One of the agencies who was awarded a bid for funding was Piedmont Health Services and Sickle Cell Agency, a Greensboro-based health care organization. The organization was tasked with providing relief in several counties, including Randolph, Montgomery, Chatham, Lee, Stanly and Rowan. Kathy Norcott, executive director of the organization, said it received about $6 million from the state to disperse to those in need in the six-county region.

Piedmont Health Services and Sickle Cell Agency contracted with Brutonville Concerned Citizens. The Montgomery-based nonprofit organization could distribute relief on an even more local basis. Through a connection with Fairley, Brutonville Concerned Citizens opened the site in Rowan County.

After accepting applications at St. Luke, representatives from Brutonville Concerned Citizens sent documents to Piedmont Health Services and Sickle Cell Agency, where they were reviewed and checks were sent out to those who qualified.

‘They didn’t handle it right’

Almost from the beginning, the program was overwhelmed with people seeking aid. The line of applicants stretched out of the church’s doors and down Hawkinstown Road. The side of the street was congested with parked cars that couldn’t fit in the church’s parking lot.

Every day we were open, we did a minimum of 500 applications,” Fairley said.

People started lining up at the church before sunrise — many waiting several hours to fill out an application. Fairley said the high demand was an example of how prevalent poverty is in the area.

Rhonda Bumgarner, a Salisbury resident, said she visited the church in January to apply. Once Bumgarner made it inside the church, she filled out an application form, received a box of food she was “very thankful for” and left. Bumgarner was told she would receive payment in four to six weeks, if approved. 

Bumgarner said payment hasn’t arrived and she hasn’t received any communication from the program’s organizers. Norcott said her agency has sent letters to people notifying them of their status, but delays with the mail could explain why some haven’t received them.

Bumgarner wasn’t the only one who had a less than favorable experience.

Sheryl Paige said she waited in line for more than four hours at the church. She said a lack of access to public bathrooms created difficulties for her and others. Jasmine Craig, another Salisbury resident said she applied at the church and was appalled with the absence of restroom access.

“Imagine the elderly who waited in line and needed to use the restroom,” Craig said. “It was a mess.”

After waiting for several hours, Paige heard one of the program’s volunteers announce people with disabilities could sign up for an appointment another day. After two hip and knee replacements in addition to other physical ailments, Paige jumped at the opportunity. She waited for another hour in a separate line and signed up for an appointment in early February.

“I showed up for the appointment and they turned me away,” Paige said. 

Paige was turned away because funding for the program had been exhausted.

“It was a one-time program and so we ended up with more application forms than we could give checks for and the state was not giving any extra money,” Norcott said. “Some people who got in got a check. They were giving out the food as people came. So they got food, but there was just no money left for the relief payments.”

Norcott said her organization asked subcontractors like Brutonville Concerned Citizens to stop accepting applications at the end of January, which is why Paige was turned away when she came back for her appointment in February.

Paige said she doesn’t understand why she was allowed to make an appointment if money was running low.

“They didn’t handle it right whatsoever,” Paige said. “I almost feel like it was discrimination against disabled people because you made the appointment and that was a joke.”

Craig said she was able to fill out an application, but never received a check. She recently called Piedmont Health Services and Sickle Cell Agency to check on the status of her application and was told there was no record of it.

“I don’t understand where my application is,” Craig said. “Even if you ran out of funds, they don’t even have it.”

Norcott said there could be “numerous reasons” why the agency didn’t have a person’s application. There were several applications the agency couldn’t review were because they were not legible or filled out incorrectly, Norcott said. Another 727 people are on a waiting list after filling out an application on time and without errors, she said.

The applications the agency does have for people who applied after funding ran out are being kept in case more funding becomes available. Norcott said there are currently 727 people on the waiting list.

“With only 727 people on the waiting list, I think that’s pretty good,” Norcott said, admitting others might not agree.

‘No smoke and mirrors’

Norcott said she thought the program was successful, but that it could have been executed better in some areas.

“It was a needed program in the community, especially for those legitimately affected by COVID,” Norcott said. “Could things have been done a little differently? Probably so, because hindsight is always 20/20.”

Fairley said he’s been approached everywhere he goes by people who have questions or complaints about the program. Overall, he said, Fairley is proud of the role St. Luke played in the program and said it was run fairly.

“No smoke and mirrors, nothing magical,” Fairley said. “Nothing was done wrong. It was just a program that ran out. It wasn’t infinite money.”

Van Vleet said she was comfortable with the state’s overall oversight of the program.

“We were definitely working fast and furious, but we asked for weekly reporting from our vendors to keep tabs on the number of each type of service delivered, how many people and how many dollars they spent to track their budget,” Van Vleet said.

Norcott said the agency dispersed over 7,329 relief checks to people in its region through the program. The program dispersed some form of aid to more than 36,000 households across the state, Van Vleet said. She said there are many positive testimonials praising the program.

While the program is currently out of funding, Van Vleet said the state is “actively exploring” additional funding sources that could provide relief to the people who have already been referred into the program. Norcott said that she is hopeful that the program will be revived with more funding.