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How to help those in need during a pandemic holiday season

Every winter for decades, Bread for the City has given out turkey dinners to low-income households in the Washington, D.C. area. But this year, as COVID-19 surges and unemployment claims are again on the rise, the nonprofit has found that community members are more concerned with daily living expenses than a holiday meal.

Instead, 15,000 families are expected to receive $50 gift cards to spend on groceries, gas or whatever they need most this season, what CEO George Jones calls a “flexible resource.”

As 2020 draws to a close, the holidays are filled with dread for many who have lost employment this year or are behind on their rent for the first time in their lives. The spirit of giving became a touchstone of the early months of the pandemic, when new mutual aid networks popped up in response to the world-altering crisis and existing organizations received an influx of donations. But both Jones and Scott Schenkelberg, CEO of Miriam’s Kitchen, which serves Washington’s chronically homeless population, see the circumstances of the people they serve in worse shape now than during the warmer months.

“A lot of people gave during the heart of the pandemic, or early on, and thankfully so. I’ve been here 25 years and I’ve never seen a summer where contributions came in as robustly as they did,” Jones said.

The coronavirus has both highlighted inequality, in its disproportionate ravaging of communities of color, and also worsened economic inequality. In 2019, the U.S. food insecurity rate among households with children was at its lowest in at least 20 years, according to USDA data compiled by Feeding America, a national nonprofit network of foodbanks. Due to COVID-19 and the resulting economic fallout, it’s estimated to have more than doubled. Feeding America projects as many as one in six Americans and one in four children will experience food insecurity in 2020. The end of the year could also bring the end of unemployment insurance for upwards of 12 million Americans, according to the progressive nonpartisan think tank The Century Foundation, not to mention the return of federal student loan bills that have been delayed by pandemic relief programs. In an effort to stanch the uncontrolled spread of the virus, some states have also restricted travel or gatherings among people who don’t reside in the same households, meaning that older, vulnerable and marginalized people may be more socially and physically isolated than normal at this time of year.

The pandemic has also put a pinch on nonprofits. Bread for the City’s food expenses have nearly doubled, becoming more costly as the year has progressed. Since April, the organization shut down two food pantries that served about 300 families a day, but reached as many as 1,000 households per day through grocery deliveries from volunteers and Amazon or UberEats.

Miriam’s Kitchen moved its meals program to an outdoor tent in March, where they use space heaters in the cold weather. Heavily reliant on donor support, the nonprofit cut their volunteer team down from about 25 to about a dozen to serve around 350 meals per day. Without federal intervention for people in need, Schenkelberg says he expects “a large increase in homelessness and economic insecurity.”

November, December and January are the highest giving months of the year for Bread for the City, sometimes accounting for as much as half of their yearly revenue. This year, however, Jones has no idea what to expect. A spike in donations in July “left me worried people were making their holiday gifts early,” he said.

Early on in the pandemic, Ain Thompson, the director of development and outreach for the rural LGBTQ nonprofit Out in the Open, committed to giving away their personal stimulus check money to a mutual aid fund created by the organization. Between June and July, they raised between $21,000, which went directly to 67 LGBTQ people living in rural New England, prioritizing people of color and other vulnerable groups, including sex workers, immigrants who are undocumented, and the recently unemployed.

But mutual aid is not just about financial assistance, suggested Thompson, who uses the pronoun they. It’s also about giving people “an opportunity to change the system so that they can feel powerful, so that they can educate people on our needs,” they said.

This year, the need for connection and collective care is likely enormous no matter where you live. Here are some ideas for how you can give.

How to help

The best way people can give is financially, charities say.

This is normally the season of volunteer opportunities, but in-person volunteering is limited this year.

Instead, find an organization that means something to you and donate.

That might include your local food bank. An estimated 80 percent of food banks nationwide are distributing more food today than they were at this time last year, and they distributed 50 percent more meals in October than in an average month. You can check Feeding America’s website or foodpantries.org to find one near you.

Meals on Wheels provides food for seniors, who are at greater risk of death or severe illness from COVID-19.

Food Rescue US works to provide for those in need while also reducing food waste by connecting businesses with excess supplies to those who prepare and deliver meals.

Paying for rent and child care are other critical expenses.

United Way has a COVID-19 Community Response and Recovery Fund to help people with food, shelter and other necessities.

CORE: Children of Restaurant Employees provides support to industry workers who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 and have dependents.

One Fair Wage Emergency Fund is providing cash assistance to food and service workers across the U.S. impacted by COVID-19.

In addition to financial assistance, some charities offer drives and wish lists to give specific resources to families in need. In 2019, 9 percent of young children lived in families that are 50 percent below the federal poverty line, according to the National Center for Children’s Poverty Center. In some states, that number is as high as 17 percent.

Save the Children is working in 87 countries to address the coronavirus crisis, including providing food for children in the U.S. who are missing out on free meals at school

Toys for Tots has distributed 584 million toys since their founding. Their website allows you to create a virtual toy box.

One Warm Coat supports local coat drives all over the U.S. Find one near you and drop off a new or gently used coat, or donate to One Warm Coat directly.

The Conscious Kid has a fund for rent relief, as well as for children’s books that “support conversations on race, racism and resistance.”

Many nonprofits and mutual aid funds are providing direct assistance to at-risk populations disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 and its economic fallout.

Undocublack network’s COVID-19 fund provides support to Black and undocumented immigrants.

The OkraProject provides meals and resources to Black trans people. The collective has also funded at least 125 free therapy sessions for people this year.

First Nations Development Institute’s COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund gives 100 percent of its funds directly to Indigenous organizations on the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis. They have raised $4.4 million and coordinated the delivery of 28,800 gallons of water, 17,749 pounds of food, and $335,670 in PPE to Indegenous communities.

National Coalition for the Homeless and Covenant House are two organizations providing life-saving resources to those experiencing homelessness, including homeless youth.

Helping Hands serves seniors and those who are immunocompromised or have preexisting conditions through grocery and other essential supply deliveries. You can volunteer to assist with contact-free deliveries in your city or donate directly to the nonprofit.

If a local aid network doesn’t exist yet, see it as an opportunity to start something.

Eva Westheimer, Out in the Open’s programs and volunteer coordinator, was inspired by a phone tree posted on her parents’ refrigerator in southwestern Ohio. She realized that a similar low-tech network could also foster community among rural LGBTQ+ folks at a time of increased isolation.

“The concept of the phone tree is being able to rapidly connect with people in a time where we know that our safety is on the line,” Westheimer said, not just from the coronavirus, but also from discrimination.

Following their lead, check in on those most vulnerable in your community or neighborhood. Isolation and loneliness can make the holidays harder, especially for those grieving loss due to COVID-19 or those who are immunocompromised and must limit social interaction. Create flyers or a simple social media call out — who is high-risk and needs errands run, food, rental assistance?

You could also create care packages of reheatable meals, masks, hand sanitizer, gift cards for gas or groceries, friendly notes or art to deliver to neighbors or people who need help. No matter what, Westheimer said, the best way to offer support during the holidays this year is to listen to the needs of your community.

Editor’s note: This post is developing and will be updated. We verified organizations and fundraising campaigns to the best of our ability. If you aren’t sure about the legitimacy of a charitable organization, visit Charity Navigator.