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Foundations, nonprofits act swiftly to contend with the coronavirus

An effort led by the Chicago Community Trust and the United Way of Metro Chicago has helped more than 40 organizations deliver essential services.

Salvation Army volunteers Bob Langsfeld and Dan Alvarez sort produce from the Omni Hotel destined for meals and food boxes.
Salvation Army volunteers Bob Langsfeld and Dan Alvarez sort produce from the Omni Hotel destined for meals and food boxes.
Salvation Army

In a beautiful, soaring city now brought low by illness, isolation and job loss, there are many thousands of little miracles of mercy.

It starts with the health care workers and those in emergency services, in many cases risking their lives to help others because they have inadequate equipment. It continues through all those who labor to provide the basics for those who only need to stay at home to assist. Some of us can’t even manage that.

But the warm rush of miracles also runs through dozens of local organizations serving immediate needs for food, money, medical care, counseling and just providing a safe place for somebody to deal with their troubles. Some of that has depended on a philanthropic act that’s astounding because it was quick, and therefore up to the challenge of the coronavirus.

By the end of last week, the Chicago Community Trust and the United Way of Metro Chicago had collected $16 million for a COVID-19 relief fund it set up March 17. Of that amount, it had pushed $3.5 million out the door with more coming fast, direct help to more than 40 nonprofit agencies set up to put the money to work now. The trust and the United Way drew on the immediate support from Chicago’s leading foundations and family donors. But the work is just beginning, and you can donate, too, by going to chicagocovid19responsefund.org. The Sun-Times is a media sponsor of the fund.

The money can be seen in the work of the Salvation Army throughout the city and suburbs, which is providing food to community pantries and homeless shelters. In a time of closed churches, it has launched a hotline for people needing emotional and spiritual support. The number is 877-740-8829, and it’s staffed from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., although off-hours callers are encouraged to leave a message. There’s also a number to call for financial help, 773-205-3520.

The philanthropic network can get bogged down in protocols and charity balls, hands-off help that can take a while to reach its destination. But the CEO of the Chicago Community Trust, Dr. Helene Gayle, said the COVID-19 response fund started issuing grants within a week of its formation because the needs couldn’t wait. “Through our efforts to close the racial and ethnic wealth gap, we know in Chicago, 65 percent of black and Latinx households could not go three months without income before falling below the poverty line,” she said. “We are highly concerned with the thousands of workers impacted by lost wages, both in the short and long term. Those already economically vulnerable are at the highest risk.”

Another agency getting the help is the Inner-City Muslim Action Network, whose offices at 2744 W. 63rd St. are a hub for local sustenance. Rami Nashashibi, the group’s executive director, said people from 80 ZIP codes arrive for help, and demand has intensified with the virus’ spread. The group provides food and health care access, counseling for the recently imprisoned and for those just now getting out of Cook County Jail, and cash for those at wit’s end.

Nashashibi said in a couple of weeks, he’ll have 5,000 care packages ready for seniors and others in need. He said he’s grateful for the speed with which the major donors have acted, but this isn’t a short-term challenge. “People are understandably very anxious about job security, food security,” he said. “But more are worried about the onset of the warmer weather months and what that will mean in areas dealing with violence.”

“This type of funding support is a real important beginning. But we need to stress that it’s only the beginning. The need is so much greater.” Nashashibi, who was named a MacArthur Foundation fellow in 2017, said economic hardship could lead to social unrest. “We need a Marshall Plan of visionary intervention,” he said.

Rami Nashashibi, executive director of the Inner-City Muslim Action Network.
John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

At the group Teamwork Englewood, Executive Director Cecile DeMello said the COVID-19 aid is helping it with such services as family counseling, job placement and a program to resolve landlord-tenant issues. She said she’s heartened that donors are listening for what people’s needs are and responding accordingly. “This is the way we make change, by working together,” she said.

DeMello was slightly late getting on a call. She had to comfort neighbors because of a shooting.

It was a reminder that a sickness will pass, but the plague of violence remains. Can we sustain the concentration and resolve that we as a city have summoned for these awful days?