How United Way’s network is helping during COVID-19

For far too many families across the region, they’re forced to choose between paying for a hot meal for the family or rent to keep their home. A needed medication or filling up the car to drive to work.

People across the St. Louis region are facing tough choices like these. They’ve lost income due to the impacts of COVID-19, putting them on the edge of hunger, homelessness and insecurity.

With nearly a century of experience in addressing our region’s complex needs and a strong network of partners, United Way is uniquely positioned to help people facing these challenges. United Way’s newest program, United to Help our Neighbors (UHN), brings together United Way’s network of partners to assist people facing income loss due to the COVID-19 crisis in regaining stability.

The need

Since the start of the COVID-19 crisis, communities across the country have experienced widespread job loss and decreased wages and work hours. Restaurants and casinos, barbers and beauty salons, and other related industries were hit especially hard by stay-at-home orders and social distancing.

Income loss can put an individual or family on the edge of crisis, intensifying existing needs or creating new challenges. It can set off a cycle of poverty, where families can’t afford the basics, are at risk of falling into debt or losing their home, and are unable to build up their savings for the future.

Since mid-March, United Way’s 2-1-1 hotline has seen a 58% increase in calls for help compared to last year. Top requests were for help with housing, healthcare, utility assistance, mental health support and food.

“We saw the unemployment and the uncertainty people had about being able to provide for their families,” said Cathy Vaisvil, United Way’s community partnerships director. “The need is immense, and anything we can do to relieve some of that burden is our goal.”

How it works

United Way modeled UHN after its successful 100 Neediest Cases program, which has provided direct assistance to local people during the holidays for nearly 100 years. Both programs leverage the power of United Way’s network of partners to offer comprehensive wrap-around services to those in need.

“We have relationships with agencies, and agencies are the experts on their clients and their needs,” said Becky White, United Way’s direct services manager. “Using that structure, we’re able to have such a strong impact and get desperately needed assistance to families that need it.”

For UHN, case managers from local nonprofits work one-on-one with clients who have lost income due to the impacts of COVID-19. The case managers then work with United Way to coordinate wrap-around services, a comprehensive set of supportive, individualized tools to address each client’s unique challenges. This may include bringing together different types of assistance from local agencies, 2-1-1 resources and government assistance programs, all according to the client’s induvial needs.

Through UHN, United Way makes direct payments to vendors (including landlords, utility companies, and others) in the client’s name or delivers the assistance to families directly for the greatest possible impact.

“Each family’s needs are different,” said Madeline Sowatsky, resource and support manager at Big Brothers Big Sisters of Eastern Missouri, which has referred families to UHN. “This program allows us to meet them where they are. Having flexibility and the comprehensive nature of the program means that the family gets to decide for themselves what they need, and we can support them in that.”

The impact

By the end of the year, UHN will provide $264,000 to help nearly 700 households regain stability, like Mr. and Mrs. R, who live with their four kids in St. Charles County.

Both work in the service industry and were diagnosed with COVID-19 around the same time. The family had already been living paycheck to paycheck, so when they had to quarantine without pay for two weeks, they fell behind on their bills. Through UHN, the family received assistance with their gas and electric bills so they could stay safely in their home and concentrate on getting well. Both parents recovered and are now back to work. 

“By providing assistance for things like rent, utilities, or medical bills, the program addresses that concern, and then the caseworker can help the family figure out the next concern – helping the family step by step,” White said. “We are proud to be one step in that process and provide the assistance the family needs.” 

UHN is not only a help to local people, but to local nonprofits as well, Sowatsky says.

“This program can do more than what we’re able to so that each family gets the best service and options to help them,” she said. “Then, we can redistribute our other resources to other families that need them. So, we’re reaching even more families through this partnership.”

“That help offers peace of mind,” Sowatsky added. “We can tell these families that United Way will be there for them. It’s something they don’t have to worry about. They know that someone cares about them and they’re not alone.”

A longtime St. Louis tradition, United Way’s 100 Neediest Cases program also works to create wrap-around solutions for those in need. Learn more about this excellent opportunity to give back during the holidays.

Take action now:

  • Discover how you can help a family in need have a brighter holiday season through 100 Neediest  Cases
  • Share this story with family and friends.  


James Taylor
James Taylor