Like many Chattanoogans, Jimmy Bernard Harris has been having a rough go of it since March.
The coronavirus pandemic flipped everyone's worlds upside down, and Harris is no different. Born and raised on the south side of Chicago, Harris moved to Chattanooga in 1977. He drove a forklift for a living before retiring and now struggles with a few health issues.
As the weather cools in November in Tennessee, Harris depends on a kerosene heater to warm his home. The problem is that the type of heater he uses depletes oxygen levels in his home, which is dangerous for his health.
"I live alone here and need daily oxygen," Harris said. "This unit just needs work done on it so I can stay in my home."
The current system he uses is detrimental to Harris' lungs because the kerosene heater emits bad fumes, he said. A few months back, Harris was given a 211 referral by the United Way of Greater Chattanooga to get assistance in paying for an electrician to service his HVAC unit.
Started in 1913 by Chattanooga Times founder Adolph Ochs, the Neediest Cases Fund provides one-time assistance to people like Harris who are faced with unforeseen circumstances that leave them unable to pay their bills.
Funded by donations from Times Free Press readers, the Neediest Cases Fund is managed by the United Way of Greater Chattanooga and distributed to people in need who are referred by partner agencies.
Recipients are required to be employed to receive assistance from the fund, which fulfills basic needs such as housing, utilities and food to those who need one-time help to become self-sufficient.
Last year, readers donated $46,569.86 to the fund, a significant increase over the 2018 total of $41,827.70.
Requests for assistance from Neediest Cases have been down in 2020, likely because people instead are requesting help from pandemic-related funds such as the United Way's Restore Hope Fund, said Carmen Hutson, director of stability and community programming for United Way of Greater Chattanooga and manager of the Neediest Cases and Restore Hope funds.
For Harris, United Way has secured an electrician who is willing to service his unit for about $500.
Harris is on a fixed income through Social Security, so money can be tight when a big project is put on his lap. He said his relationship with United Way dates back far before he ever reached out to them for help.
"I've always given food to United Way around the holidays," he said. "I'm very pleased with what they've been able to do for me. I really appreciate all of it."
Harris has a few cousins, nieces and nephews in Chattanooga to spend the holidays with. Due to the pandemic, things will undoubtedly be different this year, but he's thankful someone is looking out for him.
Contact Patrick Filbin at [email protected] or 423-757-6476. Follow him on Twitter @PatrickFilbin.