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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Director of Women United and Community Engagement Mary Kathryn Levy works on wrapping a present at the United Way of Greater Chattanooga gift wrapping booth outside of H&M at Hamilton Place mall on Friday, Dec. 13, 2019, in Chattanooga, Tenn. The United Way has two booths, one on each level of the mall, and will be wrapping presents until Dec. 24. Donations are suggested with prices varying depending on the size of the box, and they benefit United Way member agencies including the Neediest Cases Fund.

Helping people who are struggling to make ends meet is a bit like working a puzzle, and the Neediest Cases Fund is often the piece that brings everything together, said Pam Smith, the director of services for the deaf, deaf-blind and hard of hearing at the Partnership for Families, Children and Adults.

"It's a godsend to have that central piece there," Smith said. "It enables us to stretch what we can do for our clients. Without Neediest Cases, we would be limited in what we could do for them."

The Neediest Cases Fund was started in 1914 by Adolph Ochs, owner of the New York Times and the Chattanooga Times. The fund, managed by the United Way of Greater Chattanooga, helps local people with one-time donations to get them back on their feet.

Donations are being accepted through December for the Neediest Cases Fund and can be made online at timesfreepress.com/neediestcases.

"We are so grateful for the generosity of our community," said Chattanooga Times Free Press Editor Alison Gerber. "Every dollar donated to the Neediest Cases Fund stays local and provides direct assistance to someone in our community in need of help."

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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Director of Women United and Community Engagement Mary Kathryn Levy works on placing a bow on a present at the United Way of Greater Chattanooga gift wrapping booth outside of H&M at Hamilton Place Mall on Friday, Dec. 13, 2019 in Chattanooga, Tenn. The United Way has two booths, one on each level of the mall, and will be wrapping presents until Dec. 24. Donations are suggested with prices varying depending on the size of the box, and they benefit United Way member agencies including the Neediest Cases Fund.

The fund often helps the growing population of people who are asset limited, income constrained and employed, or ALICE households. These households earn above the federal poverty level but below the basic cost of living for the area. In 2017, ALICE and poverty-level households made up 39% of Hamilton County households.

A single person in Hamilton County would need to earn $10.08 an hour, or at least $20,160 per year, in order to live and work in the county today. That figure doesn't include savings for emergencies or future goals, according to a recent report.

Smith recently used Neediest Cases funds to help pay rent and utilities for a couple and their teenage children after the father was hospitalized in mid-November with a serious illness.

"We think he will be able to return to work, but we're not sure when," she said. "His wife works, but he's the primary breadwinner. She's been trying to make partial payments on rent and utilities, anything to not get evicted."

With two teenagers at home, the family has expenses they simply can't cover on one secondary income. For people living paycheck to paycheck, missed work can spell disaster, Smith said.

"It's very hard to have six months of expenses set aside — most of us just can't afford that," she said. "Even a week of missed work can knock someone off track."

Contact Mary Fortune at mfortune@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6653. Follow her on Twitter at @maryfortune.

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