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Foundations Respond, As Coronavirus Will Make Vulnerable People “Even More Vulnerable"


Pittsburgh’s philanthropic community is preparing to stem the effects of coronavirus on the region. So far, there are no confirmed cases in Allegheny County.

The United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania and a group of foundations started meeting a couple weeks ago to discuss how best to be of help. The United Way is in frequent communication with service providers because of its 2-1-1 service; anyone can call 2-1-1 and be connected to resources such as nutrition programs, housing options, and health care information.

United Way sent a survey to more than 1,600 nonprofits last week to find out where they expect to see increased demand for services in the coming months. In less than 48 hours, they received more than 180 responses, said Bobbi Watt Geer, president of United Way.

“Our nonprofit partners have a lot of questions, a lot of potential needs if things ramp up in the region,” she said. Many respondents said they’re particularly worried about clients who may be isolated in their homes, or families who may not be able to go to work.

There are vulnerable people in the region, and those are the people who will be even more vulnerable as a result of this potential crisis, said Watt Geer.

“People who are living paycheck to paycheck, people who may not have access to childcare or they can’t go to work because a family member is sick,” she said. “It will spiral into many more needs within that family.”

The group intends to create a critical community response fund or emergency action fund to help support nonprofits who may otherwise struggle to meet an increased demand for services. Many providers operate with just a few months of reserve funds and could struggle to meet an increase in demand, said Watt Geer.

“We are all working around the clock,” to mobilize the fund, said Lisa Schroeder, president and CEO of The Pittsburgh Foundation. Most important, they are working to make sure that accessing help doesn’t further burden organizations in need.

“Circumstances are changing on a daily and weekly basis,” she said. “We know that it will be critical to make the process as clear and easy for nonprofits who are already dealing with overwhelming need.”

The fear and uncertainty surrounding coronavirus and COVID-19 feeds into a cycle of market turmoil, said Grant Oliphant, president of The Heinz Endowments.

“That is going to impact not only the resources that organizations have, including foundations such as ours, but also the perception that people have of their ability to give,” he said. “We think we’re going to see a dropoff in terms of support and giving to nonprofit organizations, which at this moment are more essential than ever.”

Part of what Oliphant and foundations seek to do is remind people to remain engaged in and supportive of the region’s social infrastructure, he said. 

“That will collectively keep our society from falling through the floor at a moment of great crisis.”

The PNC Foundation will continue to monitor the situation, Sally McCrady wrote in a statement. She is chair and president of the foundation.

We “remain committed to supporting the communities where we live and work, which is especially important in these challenging times.”

In the short-term, the Hebrew Free Loan Association of Pittsburgh, or HFLA, created an interest-free loan program designed specifically to help people affected by the virus.

“This is really an unprecedented health crisis that will also create an unprecedented financial crisis,” said Shelley Daniels, president of HFLA.

Daniels said the loans can help cover medical bills, lost wages, small business losses, or unexpected childcare costs. Anyone who lives in Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Washington, and Westmoreland counties can apply for a loan up to $5,000 through the association’s website.

Margaret J. Krauss is WESA’s senior reporter. She covers development and transportation, and has produced award-winning podcasts on housing, work, and Pittsburgh’s lesser-known history. Before joining the newsroom full time, she covered the challenges facing Pennsylvania cities as a statewide reporter, and spent another life as an assistant editor for National Geographic Kids Magazine in Washington, D.C. She can be reached at mkrauss@wesa.fm.