Here's how United Way distributed over $850,000 to those hardest-hit by COVID-19 in Washtenaw County

United Way of Washtenaw County's COVID-19 Community Relief Fund recently completed its third round of grantmaking, capping a whirlwind two months in which the nonprofit launched the fund, raised $1 million for it, and awarded over $850,000 through 51 grants.


The fund aims to provide speedy support to local nonprofits and community groups meeting "immediate, emergent, and unanticipated needs" during the pandemic. It has prioritized efforts serving Washtenaw County's communities of color, who have been hardest-hit by the pandemic.


Bridget Healy, vice president of impact and advocacy for United Way of Washtenaw County, says the organization implemented several new practices to ensure rapid response and equity in access to grant funds. She says staff turned grant proposals around within a week – "an exponentially higher rate than we have ever before" – and issued payment to grantees within two business days. United Way of Washtenaw County also made it possible for applicants to apply by phone for the first time ever and shortened its usual application.


"We really wanted to keep it high and tight because we don't want folks spending time sitting in front of a computer, crafting a request to us," Healy says. "We want them to be meeting the essential and emergent needs of folks who are being impacted by COVID-19."


One of the grantees meeting those needs is the New West Willow Neighborhood Association (NWWNA) in Ypsilanti Township's West Willow neighborhood. NWWNA received a $20,000 grant from the relief fund, which will primarily be used to provide direct financial assistance for residents to pay off their rent, mortgage, and/or utility bills. West Willow community advocate Alex Thomas says many of his neighbors have lost their jobs and there's "lots of anxiety" about being able to pay those basic expenses.


"The only thing that's certain is uncertainty," he says.


However, Thomas says he and other community leaders are working to make residents aware of other financial assistance that's available to them first, such as stimulus money from the federal CARES Act or Washtenaw County's Barrier Busters fund.


"Whether fact or not, the perception is that applying for aid is very cumbersome and that there's a low likelihood of being eligible," Thomas says. "So we're [making] an effort to fight that perception by getting all the information that we can, collating it in a simplified form, and getting it out in an accurate way and a simplified way."


Thomas and other NWWNA leaders will train a group of 10 to 15 community advocates to educate West Willow residents on the resources available to them. Thomas will create a digital guide to financial resources that advocates can distribute on Zoom or social media, but he says the training will also emphasize making phone contact with older residents and others who may not be internet-savvy. After this initial push to connect residents to existing sources of support, Thomas says United Way of Washtenaw County funds will be used to support "whoever falls through the cracks."


Two other grantees are focused on supporting Washtenaw County's Latinx community during the pandemic. Buenos Vecinos and Mexiquenses en Michigan each received a $20,000 grant.


Buenos Vecinos (working with its fiscal agent, Jewish Family Services of Washtenaw County) has already disbursed its grant funds to over 60 Ypsilanti-area Latinx families, providing support for them to pay their rent, mortgage, and/or utility bills. Mexiquenses en Michigan (in collaboration with the Washtenaw Interfaith Coalition for Immigrant Rights and St. Francis of Assisi Parish) has used grant funds to provide similar support to 100 Latinx families throughout Washtenaw County, but focused heavily on the 48197 and 48198 ZIP codes.


Charo Ledon, Buenos Vecinos cofounder, notes that many Latinx residents are experiencing unique challenges during the pandemic because they don't have a Social Security number. People are ineligible for unemployment or a federal stimulus check even if they have a government-issued Individual Taxpayer Identification Number. Ledon notes that that's particularly challenging for Latinx residents because many of them work at "restaurants and lawn care and hotel housekeeping, those kinds of jobs that are not functioning right now."


"There's rampant unemployment, with no access to the benefits provided through the federal government," says Rosemary Linares, principal of Cross Movement Social Justice Consulting and external consultant to Buenos Vecinos. "So ... United Ways or community foundations or mutual aid funding mechanisms are the only ways substantial amounts of money can be funneled to the families so they can address their basic needs."


Maria Millitzer, president of the Mexiquenses en Michigan board, says that during the pandemic, the county's Latinx community needs space to voice its concerns, share successful experiences with overcoming barriers, and build empowerment and advocacy.


"But more importantly, [it needs] the commitment of the greater community to actively listen and support the Latinx immigrant community in an equitable manner," she says. "United Way of Washtenaw [County] just did that."


United Way of Washtenaw County has now awarded 51 grants through the relief fund, and a fourth round of grantmaking is underway. Healy says there may be additional rounds beyond the fourth, but the organization is now "pivoting to recovery." It's currently fundraising for a COVID-19 Recovery Fund, which Healy says will go beyond relieving urgent, immediate needs to focus on continuing to stabilize Washtenaw County residents in the pandemic's wake.


"We are trying to look out around how we return our community to some semblance of steady state as we move through the pandemic," she says.


For more Concentrate coverage of our community's response to the COVID-19 crisis, click here.


Patrick Dunn is Concentrate's managing editor.

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