Though United Way Suncoast has been serving our community for nearly 100 years by addressing access to quality education, removing barriers to financial stability and providing help in a crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a crisis like no other.
Causing economic uncertainty for hundreds of thousands across our region, among those most affected has been the A.L.I.C.E. (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) population. These hardworking households were already living paycheck to paycheck, one crisis away from financial ruin. Before the pandemic hit, 44% of all households across our five-county footprint, were not earning enough to cover basic necessities. That percentage is much higher for households of color, who have also been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.
As COVID-19 spread across our region, they struggled to feed their families, keep a roof over their heads and pay for basic needs.
As our resource centers, VITA sites, afterschool and learning programs and offices closed, we quickly began mobilizing resources and finding new ways to safely offer our services so that our most vulnerable populations could get the help they needed.
We convened virtual meetings with COVID-19 funded community partners to discuss eligibility and referral process for families in need and collaborated with other non-profits throughout the region to provide much needed services like food pantries in the most economically challenged areas.
We immediately established the COVID-19 Response and Recovery Fund. Thanks to the outpouring of support from our community, we raised nearly $1.6M. Funds have been distributed to 70 non-profit human services organizations throughout our five-county region. Focused on those organizations that serve the ALICE population, funds have provided help with emergency food assistance, food bank supports, housing stability, shelter, utility bills, mental health needs and other essential priorities. 100% of the fund is going directly to help those impacted by COVID-19.
We joined with Pinellas Community Foundation, Allegany Franciscan Ministries and Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg to form The Tampa Bay Resiliency Fund to provide funding to organizations helping our most vulnerable citizens during the COVID-19 crisis. Nearly $1M has been distributed to agencies across Tampa Bay for transitional and emergency housing, food assistance, and more.
PROGRAMS AND SERVICES RESPONSE
We set up resource pages to quickly and easily direct people to the help they needed most:
- The Coronavirus Assistance Center provides a one-stop online resource to access information on food assistance, unemployment benefits, tax help, small business loans, mental health helplines, 2-1-1 information and much more.
- The Educational Resources page provides parents and caregivers with tools to help students with online learning, arts and crafts, activities, fitness and more, along with links to the five school districts in our region and the help they are providing.
Our three resource centers – Campbell Park, North Greenwood and Sulphur Springs – quickly transitioned from in-person services to alternative ways to continue helping their neighborhoods.
- Called all neighbors that had visited the centers in the past three months to connect them to services as needed
- Individuals that call the centers are connected to case management services virtually and all assessments, follow ups and coordination are done via phone/email
- Newsletters were sent to individuals to keep them up-to-date on COVID-19 efforts and provide important information on topics like economic stimulus payments and evictions
- Connected individuals with partners like Bay Area Legal Services for virtual tenant workshops and more
- Working with Feeding Tampa Bay to provide weekly food distributions at each center
- Contacted Operation Graduate students to ensure they had computers issued by school, technology to implement and mental health checks
- Working with St. Pete Works to provide jobs for unemployed residents in the South St. Petersburg Area
Our VITA (Volunteer Income Tax Assistance) sites were forced to shut down for the health and safety of our volunteers and taxpayers but that didn’t mean help wasn’t available. Our team quickly set up an online tax FAQs document and form for taxpayers to submit more detailed questions. We also directed taxpayers to free e-file options offered through the IRS and kept them informed about the economic stimulus payments, ever changing tax-filing deadlines, and how to set up direct deposit. We are currently looking at ways to safely reopen our year-round tax sites.
Our Engagement Team worked with nonprofits throughout the region to offer ways to safely volunteer and help those most in need including food banks and food distribution sites. We set up virtual volunteer opportunities like ‘thank a healthcare worker’ and ‘thank a teacher’ to show our appreciation for those on the frontlines of the pandemic. We also provided in-kind donation request lists from the organizations we work with for those who wanted to help in a different way.
As we move beyond immediate relief efforts, we know that recovery from COVID-19 will take much longer. Although many businesses have reopened, others have reduced staff, permanently closed or are bringing back workers in part-time positions.
In addition to long-term financial implications, COVID-19 has negatively impacted our students. Without access to learning tools at home like books, literacy kits and even basic school supplies, these children are at risk of falling far behind their classmates. And, without the programs that normally help them keep up in school like ReadingPals and Learning Pals over the last few months, these students are vulnerable to what is normally called the “summer slide,” where children lose up to two months of reading skills due to lack of academic enrichment.
We have taken steps to help make up for these educational deficits by implementing summer programs in new ways including our six week virtual learning program at La Mirada in Bradenton, sponsoring virtual reading programs in DeSoto and Manatee counties and funding scholarships and tutors for a variety of Summer Care sites across Hillsborough County.
United Way Suncoast stands ready to assist for the duration of this crisis and beyond, continuing our work in giving students the educational supports they need to succeed and helping create a more financially stable future for the ALICE population throughout our region.
We will continue focusing our efforts on our most underserved neighborhoods, working to eliminate the inequity that contributes to people not reaching their full potential.