In a Nutshell: When residents of Southwestern Pennsylvania face financial hardship, they often turn to their local branch of United Way. Through its PA 211 Southwest helpline, United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania connects those in need with community resources and partners that can help them navigate difficult situations. The organization has been especially critical during the COVID-19 pandemic when many people lost income and needed to meet basic needs. United Way SWPA also helps people with financial services, including a free tax preparation program that aims to maximize their refunds.
A woman in her 80s was living alone in early 2020 when she became aware of the COVID-19 pandemic. As an octogenarian in Southwestern Pennsylvania, she was part of the high-risk population. While she was still relatively safe, she traveled to the store and purchased many weeks’ worth of groceries to avoid the rush and potential infection.
Then the woman, who lived on a fixed income, received her electric bill. Because she’d stocked up on provisions, she didn’t have the money to pay other living expenses.
“By pre-spending that money, she no longer had the $80 she needed to pay her electric bill,” said Michele Sandoe, Senior Director of United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania’s PA 2-1-1 Southwest, a 24/7 health and human services helpline. “She was very upset because she didn’t know what to do at that point.”
That’s where United Way stepped in to help her meet her financial obligations, and get through the stress of the pandemic.
“If you can just help people get through that point, you’re saving them so much long-term financial hardship down the road,” Sandoe said.
United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania strives to help all individuals and families address debt and weather struggles to emerge in better financial situations.
Through its 211 helpline, United Way SWPA provides the resources and support people need to put food on the table, keep the lights on, and keep a roof over their head. It helps people meet their immediate needs so they can forge a positive financial future rather than amass more harmful debt.
“Our goal at United Way is to always be a collaborator, a convener, and a resource for our communities,” Sandoe said.
211 Connects Callers with Information and Assistance
The 211 helpline is mainly how United Way SWPA connects with individuals and families experiencing hardships. Although United Way is broadly dedicated to addressing health and human services, it is also an excellent resource for those dealing with financial issues, debt, and personal emergencies.
“You can reach us by dialing 2-1-1, texting us at 898-211, or by going to our website — pa211sw.org — to find resources,” Sandoe said. “People reach out to us, and we have professional resource navigators who are trained to make a connection with you and evaluate your issues.”
Sandoe said that callers may reach out regarding a particular problem, but they often experience multiple related problems. Thanks to its connections within the community, United Way may have the resources to help with all of those concerns.
Calling 211 can help resolve a pressing problem and establish a relationship with United Way that helps them deal with future issues.
“We try to establish that relationship and match the best resources that we have available in the community to their needs,” Sandoe said. “Besides providing you with resources and the opportunity to get assistance, we will follow up with you to make sure that you’ve gotten the help that you need and then continue with that relationship.”
Partners Provide Help With Food, Housing, and Utilities
United Way’s capacity to resolve problems stems from its expansive array of partnerships within the community.
“We work with partners and other nonprofits who provide services at no cost or a severely reduced cost to our clients,” Sandoe said. “Think about utility assistance. We would connect you with the Law Heat Program, the Crisis Program if there’s a hardship fund for the utility, or work with the utility company to make a payment agreement.”
United Way SWPA also maintains an emergency-needs funds that may be available to people in dire straits. Those in need can use the fund to buy food or pay for housing and utilities, all to stabilize their living situations.
Often, United Way directs people in need to community partners, and those community partners also direct people to additional aid available through United Way.
“Many times, we go into the communities and find local champions, whether that’s a small nonprofit that’s trusted in the community or a house of worship that’s a centralized location for families,” Sandoe said. “We build a champion in the community, and when someone approaches them with a need, they can say, ‘Have you tried United Way?’ They need to trust that where they’re going to is going to be confidential and secure. And that’s what we are.”
Expanding its Services in Response to the Pandemic
“When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, we were here at the front, recognizing that there’s going to be a need,” Sandoe said. “Not only for answering questions and helping people with getting a vaccine, but also recognizing the financial impact and hardship COVID-19 was going to create in the short- and the long-term.”
Many families across the United States lost income due to COVID-19 safety restrictions, and that was no less true in Southwestern Pennsylvania. Going for months without income is a financial setback that can lead to significant debt and it will take some time to recover from.
“United Way pulled together optimal resources for folks who need assistance,” Sandoe said. “Due to COVID-19, our four biggest needs were financial assistance, food resources, housing resources, and utility resources.”
Those needs were not emergencies only at the start of the pandemic. People who had no debt and appreciable financial safety nets found themselves facing the same problems others encountered at the beginning of the pandemic three to six months down the road.
“We had folks looking for help for the first time and they had no idea where to turn,” Sandoe said. “As well as folks who had needed help before the pandemic.”
Throughout the crisis, United Way connected people with food pantries, housing and rental assistance, and utility service protections. The 211 helpline played a crucial role in that mission.
“We partnered with Allegheny County to provide their COVID support,” Sandoe said. “The health department did not have the capacity to answer all of the COVID calls that were coming in, but we worked with them. We also helped complete appointments so folks could get their COVID-19 vaccine, especially elderly people without internet access.”
Free Tax Prep Service Keeps Pace with the Financial Impacts
While United Way SWPA has helped plenty of communities out during the pandemic, its ultimate goal is to help people live better, whether it’s during a crisis or just everyday life.
“It’s important for folks to know we’re here, and we recognize that, just because you’ve been vaccinated, the struggles are not over,” Sandoe said. “There are going to be some financial challenges here for the next few years.”
To help people address those challenges early on, United Way offers a free tax return preparation service. Anyone who takes advantage of the program can rest assured their taxes will be completed on time and correctly. If they are owed tax refunds, they’ll also retain valuable funds they can use to start rebuilding their finances in the wake of the pandemic.
“This is, hands down, one of the best programs,” Sandoe said. “It is essential, even in a non-COVID year, to make sure folks complete their income taxes, and it’s done correctly so you can maximize your tax credit or your tax refunds. Especially for folks on a fixed income or low income.”
The program allows people to keep more money to pay for expenses or save for the future. With the help of United Way, communities feel the impact of those funds.
“This brings millions of dollars back into the community that folks desperately needed,” Sandoe said. “Every dollar right now is precious.”