Neediest Cases Fund donations approach $70,000 amid pandemic

Thousands of Chattanooga area residents have been offered a hand up through the Neediest Cases Fund over more than a century, and help is needed now more than ever.

After a giving year of more than $80,000 in 2020, this year's fund coffers tallied a preliminary total Thursday of $69,400 as the 2021 campaign came to a close for the second year under the shadow of a pandemic.

That's still well above 2019's $43,800, 2018's $36,700 and 2017's $28,900, and shows people in an unprecedented time can understand their neighbors' struggles.

"We're humbled and grateful that once again our community showed tremendous generosity, especially at a time when the pandemic has left so many of our neighbors in challenging financial situations," said Alison Gerber, editor of the Times Free Press. "Every dollar donated to the Neediest Cases Fund goes directly to helping individuals in our community who need temporary assistance."

For 2021, financial help from the fund was earmarked mostly for applicants needing help with rent, followed closely by utilities, records show.

In 2021, 54 households with 79 adults and 61 children among them were assisted by the fund, according to Pat Strange, the United Way of Greater Chattanooga's stability support specialist. Those figures represent an increase from 2020, when 42 households with 60 adults and 40 children were helped.

As the pandemic rolls into 2022, illness, the loss of loved ones or a job remain a burden on families, Strange said last week.

"Contributions to Neediest Cases Fund can provide hope and encouragement to those who have suffered setbacks through no fault of their own," she said in an email. "They will have the opportunity to maintain a safe, secure home and household once again for themselves and their families."

The amounts requested in 2021 ranged from $290 to $1,600, according to fund data. Funds from the Times Free Press campaign conducted between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day are administered by the United Way of Greater Chattanooga and its partner agencies. Recipients' stories are published in the paper throughout the holiday season.

Fund recipients are typically individuals or families who have experienced unforeseen situations that disrupted their lives and threatened their financial well-being. Since Neediest Cases funding is a "one-time" assistance program, recipients must be working or on a fixed income and demonstrate that they can become stable and self-sufficient long-term after receiving this help from the community.

One man the fund helped was living in a moldy apartment with no functioning heat, ventilation or air conditioning. He realized it was time to find a safe place to live but hadn't received his first paycheck yet from a new job.

Despite those conditions, the 26-year-old was given a deadline to move out by a landlord who refused to get the apartment back in shape. A partner agency kept the man from ending up on the streets.

Another case involved a mother of four with several family members who had been sickened by the coronavirus, forcing her out of work without pay for a month about a year ago. She needed help most with her rent.

Started in 1914 by former Chattanooga Times Publisher Adolph Ochs, the Neediest Cases Fund receives donations from Times Free Press readers. Money from the fund is distributed to people in need who are referred by partner agencies.

The year ahead

There was an increase in requests for assistance as the pandemic continued through 2021, and needs are expected to rise, according to United Way data.

Rising housing costs have been worsened by a lack of safe, affordable housing, United Way director of community programs in Chattanooga, Jessica Bastianelli, said in November as the first Times Free Press coverage of Neediest Cases began.

People caught in the housing struggle can be forced to choose between paying their rent and living expenses, Bastianelli said.

It's not just housing costs that are hitting people hard. Strange noted that recent reports on the economy show inflation is affecting families, too.

On Dec. 10, the U.S. Department of Labor said consumer prices grew in November at an annual rate of 6.8%, the highest in 39 years.

Strange said partner agencies include Family Promise of Greater Chattanooga, Rhea County United Way, McNabb Centers, AIM Center, Partnership for Families, Children & Adults and St. Alexius Outreach Ministries.

Contact Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton.