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 continues to be 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, 43% of all households across our five-county footprint, were not earning enough to cover basic necessities. As COVID-19 spread across our region, they struggled to feed their families, keep a roof over their heads and pay for basic needs.
Beginning in mid-March, our team focused on helping our community navigate the pandemic by deploying a multi-pronged approach.
The COVID-19 Response and Recovery Fund was created to provide immediate assistance to those suffering financial hardships due to the pandemic. The fund has raised $1.8M, with $1.5 awarded so far. An additional $300,000 was donated after the other funds had been disbursed and a committee is determining where these funds will go. The initial $1.5M received went to 75 agencies across our five-county footprint for food (29%), housing/shelter (26%), financial stability, mental health, healthcare and childcare for children of essential workers. Of the 503K unduplicated individuals and 293K households who received assistance, 67% of IND and 39% of HH were ALICE.
We also 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. The group is now collaborating on the ongoing eviction crisis, triggered by the end of the mortgage/rent moratorium with many landlords and lenders requiring 5-6 months of payments due all at once.
PROGRAMS AND SERVICES RESPONSE
We established an online Coronavirus Assistance Center so that individuals could quickly and easily navigate to the assistance they needed –
- Food banks
- VITA tax help
- 2-1-1 benefits
- Unemployment benefits
- Job links
- Mental health helplines
- And more
The page continues to provide help to our neighbors in crisis, now including information on CARES Act Funding and help dealing with eviction issues related to coronavirus.
Our Campbell Park, North Greenwood and Sulphur Springs centers transitioned from in-person services to alternative ways to continue helping their neighborhoods for several months.
- Called all neighbors that had visited the centers in the past three months to connect them to services as needed
- Individuals calling the centers were connected to case management services virtually
- Newsletters were sent to keep neighbors 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 legal assistance
- Contacted Operation Graduate students to ensure they had school-issued computers, technology to implement and for mental health checks
- Partnered with St. Pete Works to provide jobs for unemployed residents in the South St. Petersburg area
The Resource Centers have since reopened with limited hours and proper safety protocols.
In addition to all regular services, the resource centers partnered with Feeding Tampa Bay earlier this year to provide weekly food distributions at each location. Hundreds of families are receiving nutritious meals and food bags each week. The partnership is also providing Thanksgiving meals and will host holiday food and toy distributions in December.
VITA (Volunteer Income Tax Assistance)
Although our sites were forced to temporarily shut down for the health and safety of our volunteers and taxpayers, 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. Taxpayers were directed to free e-file options offered through the IRS and kept informed about the economic stimulus payments, ever changing tax-filing deadlines, and how to set up direct deposit.
From Jan. – Sept. 2020:
- United Way specific sites prepared 9,161 returns
- United Way's partnership reached 13,395 returns
- VITA United Way-specific provided $14,469,812 in money back to the community in refunds and fees saved - $12, 637,612 in refunds; $1,832,200 in fees saved
- Our community received $6,021,627 in credits - $3,188,877 in EITC (Earned Income Tax Credits); $2,832,750 in Child Tax Credits
In addition to long-term financial implications, COVID-19 has had a negative impact on our students. As schools transitioned to virtual learning, many children were without access to learning tools at home like books, literacy kits and even basic school supplies. And, without the afterschool programs that were normally available to these students to help them keep up, they have been 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 several steps to help make up for these educational deficits. Over the summer, we implemented a six week virtual learning program through the Reading Room at La Mirada in Bradenton. Running two hours a day, M-F, 24 students participated in interactive classes and tutoring sessions with a Bilingual Certified Teacher. 89% of the children surpassed the Summer Reading Challenge of reading at least six leveled books over the summer and 100% of parents reported seeing improvements in their child’s reading ability and/or confidence.
Students received a summer learning kit filled with school/art supplies, books, and learning activities so they could continue learning at home. In addition, 600 lunches and 700 weekend food bags were distributed to the children and their families because hungry children can’t concentrate on learning. We are building a year-round afterschool program at this location and our newest Reading Room at Bradenton Village is now open.
Students in DeSoto and Manatee counties had access to virtual reading programs over the summer and we continued funding scholarships and tutors for a variety of Summer Care sites across Hillsborough County.
As summer turned into fall, we introduced our Reading All-Stars program to pair volunteers with students to give them extra reading help. The program continues virtually for the safety of all involved.
As we face the uncertainty of an ongoing pandemic, a looming eviction crisis and continued financial instability, the one certainty moving forward is that our community needs United Way Suncoast more than at any other time in recent history. Thanks to your compassion, commitment and generous support, we will continue to be here, giving everyone in our community the Freedom to Rise.