Published Together: With Coronavirus Response Fund, a community comes together

We’re living in a rare moment when there’s really only one story. Turn on the news or open up Facebook, and nearly every item, every post relates to COVID-19. For a challenge so all-encompassing, no one person, agency, or policy can address the need on its own.

Even before the coronavirus put thousands in the hospital and thousands more out of work, the need in Kent County was great. In fact, 37% of our county’s residents live under the ALICE threshold: “Asset-Limited, Income-Constrained, Employed.” They are either officially in poverty or they are earning more than the federal poverty level, but not enough to reliably pay for the basics like nutritious food, safe housing, transportation, and childcare.

Now, with over 1 million people unemployed in our state, we’re looking at historic levels of need. 

That’s why a group of local foundations and businesses, including Grand Rapids Community Foundation, Meijer, Kellogg, and the DeVos family foundations, established the Coronavirus Response Fund at Heart of West Michigan United Way. The partners understood that, in a crisis of this magnitude, there would be tremendous need and a high interest in giving. They also understood that creating a single place to direct those dollars would make our community more effective in its response.

Since it was publicly announced on March 23, the Coronavirus Response Fund has granted $2.3 million to 123 local agencies, and the number grows by the day.

Those agencies run the gamut from some of the largest organizations in our community to grassroots agencies run almost entirely by volunteers. Every single one is doing the vital work of meeting basic needs worsened by this crisis.

Food pantries and multi-service agencies like The Green Apple Pantry in southeast Grand Rapids, United Church Outreach Ministry (UCOM) in Southwest Grand Rapids, and North Kent Connect in Rockford are using their grants from the Coronavirus Response Fund to serve clients who may never have needed help before.

Claire Guisfredi, executive director of North Kent Connect, has seen 75 new households register to become clients due to job loss or reduced hours since the outbreak began.

She told us about Joseph, a single father of three, who came to North Kent Connect after having his hours reduced at the restaurant where he works. He was worried about coming up with the $325 he owed on his trailer for May. North Kent Connect’s Coronavirus Response Fund grant made it possible to help Joseph pay his rent.Michelle Van Dyke

United Church Outreach Ministry is also experiencing an influx of new clients.

Development Director Karrie Brown reported that 83 new households sought assistance from the agency in March, almost three times more than they see in a typical month. Many of the families have been referred to UCOM by the Hispanic Center of Western Michigan, another Coronavirus Response Fund grant recipient.

Grant recipients are using their grant money to meet a wide variety of needs.

Bhutanese Community of Michigan and Roosevelt Park Neighborhood Association are distributing PPE and hygiene products to keep neighbors safe. First Steps Kent and The SOURCE are supporting childcare for essential workers. Mel Trotter Ministries, Family Promise of Grand Rapids, Community Rebuilders, and others are using their funding to provide socially-distanced shelter and housing to individuals and families experiencing homelessness.

At a time when extraordinary demand is making it hard for many workers to file for unemployment, local agencies are stepping in to meet needs the public sector currently can’t.

Meaning in Colors, which provides a wide range of services from mentoring to transitional housing, is helping people like Robbie with food and rent costs. A factory worker, Robbie was laid off as a result of the coronavirus.

“I lost my job. I didn’t have any income. You guys helped me out a whole lot here,” Robbie told us via video. “Also, I don’t have any family here, so like I said, this helped me out tremendously. I’m just grateful for the help you’ve provided.”

Looking ahead, we expect that, as emergency needs for food and shelter decrease, other needs will take their place.

As businesses come back online, we expect to see an increased need for childcare, as many licensed providers will be slow to reopen and others won’t reopen at all.

It’s likely, too that other businesses, especially in the hospitality industry, may remain permanently closed. Those workers will need our help as they earn new credentials, go back to school, or search for work.

Finally, we know that the current moratorium on evictions will end at some point. Those rent payments will be due, and many who have been laid off or working reduced hours will need our help to stay in their homes.

We fully expect that the shadow cast by this crisis will be long, but, having seen how our community has responded so far, I am confident we are able to meet the need – as long as we work together.


Michelle Van Dyke serves as President & CEO of Heart of West Michigan United Way and has held this position since January 2016. Previously, Michelle was the president of Fifth Third Mortgage Company.
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