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Staff Photo by Dan Henry / The Chattanooga Times Free Press- 11/17/16. The Community Kitchen off of E. 11th St. in downtown Chattanooga on November, 17, 2016.

The Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga has raised more than $1 million to help groups working to lessen the impacts of COVID-19 on local communities. The Community Response and Relief Fund is being used to help people disproportionately hurt by the coronavirus' health or economic impacts.

Maeghan Jones, president of the Community Foundation, said her organization has been inspired by the response of frontline workers.

"They are demonstrating a powerful example that show how we — even as we're living our lives further apart — can come together to lift each other up and support our most vulnerable neighbors," reads a statement from Jones.

The Community Foundation has distributed $560,000 to 14 local organizations so far and will continue making grants to the community.

Jens Christensen, Chattanooga Community Kitchen chief executive officer, said the money has been critical to keeping people experiencing homelessness safe from the coronavirus. The Community Kitchen is working with the Salvation Army to deliver around 160 meals a day to people living in encampments.

The delivered meals discourage those people from congregating at the social service site on East 11th Street unless they need to access other services, he said. The group also purchased tents and tarps to encourage social distancing so people spread out their campsites, rather than living in close proximity. People experiencing homelessness are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, with many of them having underlying medical conditions, such as hypertension or upper respiratory issues, as well as no place to quarantine or self-isolate.

Money is also being used to buy food since many of the kitchen's community partners that would otherwise provide donations, such as restaurants, are no longer operating, Christensen said.

Christensen said he was thankful the Community Foundation began pooling resources before Chattanooga began to experience the direct impacts of COVID-19.

"I can't give the Community Foundation enough credit in getting their partners together and getting ahead of it in ways that I haven't seen others do," he said.

(READ MORE: Coronavirus fears grow among Chattanooga's essential workers, those with no work-from-home option)

The coronavirus has infected more than 4,300 people in Tennessee and killed at least 79 people. Meanwhile, 16.6 million Americans lost their jobs in the past three weeks, including more than 13,500 in Southeast Tennessee.

However, the stimulus packages passed by Congress last month and state efforts deny relief money from people in mixed-status households or individuals who use a taxpayer identification number to pay taxes. This puts the burden on local social service agencies that assist undocumented individuals to fill in the gaps.

Tennessee United is using its fund to continue distributing food boxes in the Latino community. Many of the people the group helps are not eligible for government assistance programs, despite paying taxes, said Nitza Ortiz, an organizer with Tennessee United.

La Paz Chattanooga is hoping to use the Community Foundation grant money to provide the financial assistance local families are unable to get from the government, said Vivian Lozano-Sterchi, director of social impact.

"A lot of our families are really struggling financially because a lot of them work in the service sector jobs that have been closed," she said.

Since the economic effects of coronavirus began hitting Chattanooga, La Paz has received more than 500 calls from community members looking for help. The organization estimates, even if the grant money helps 500 local families, it still will not meet the need, Lozano-Sterchi said.

Working with the United Way, the Community Foundation has provided grants to 14 organizations, including Boys & Girls Club of Chattanooga, Chattanooga Area Food Bank, Chattanooga Community Kitchen, Clinica Medicos, Hamilton County Schools, La Paz, Metropolitan Ministries, Northside Neighborhood House, Signal Centers, the Soddy-Daisy Food Bank, St. Alexius Outreach Ministries, Tennessee United, The Salvation Army and YMCA of Chattanooga.

The next round of grants is expected to be announced next week.

Contact Wyatt Massey at wmassey@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.

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