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United Way fund provides quick cash to struggling residents

Working families and individuals who have lost jobs or hours during the COVID-19 emergency might have another source of assistance through a new United Way fund offering $200 electronic cash cards to eligible recipients.

The fund is part of the Connecticut United Ways Statewide COVID-19 Response Fund, created with funding from major corporations and donations from the public.

The program provides one-time $200 electronic wallet cash cards to the smartphones of qualifying low-income working families and individuals in the category called ALICE — Asset Limited Income Constrained, Working — who have suffered job loss, reduction of hours or other financial hardships during the COVID-19 emergency.

For New London County, the program started with a first phase of $34,000 to provide 170 grants of $200 each, but officials hope for future allocations as the fund grows with donations and corporate sponsorships.

Virginia Mason, president and CEO of the United Way of Southeastern Connecticut, said the fund is trying to get immediate help to families in need, with the realization that the COVID-19 emergency could continue for a while.

United Way has divided up the 21 towns in New London County and enlisted six local human services agencies to process applications in designated towns.

Catholic Charities in New London is handling applications for New London, Waterford, East Lyme, Lyme and Old Lyme. Catholic Charities in Norwich is serving residents of Preston, Lisbon, Griswold and Voluntown. Norwich Human Services is handling Norwich, Bozrah, Lebanon, Franklin and Sprague. Groton Human Services has Groton and Ledyard. Pawcatuck Neighborhood Center is handling Stonington and North Stonington. And Montville Senior & Social Services is handling applications from Montville, Salem and Colchester.

Applicants must meet four criteria: meet ALICE income range of $15,000 to $24,000 for individuals, $32,750 to $75,200 for families, lost a job, had hours greatly reduced or are homebound or caring for others during COVID-19 shutdown, reside in the town assigned to the agency and have a working smartphone to receive the electronic cash card.

Dina Sears-Graves, United Way vice president of community impact, said about 40 grants have been dispersed as of Tuesday.

“We just got it up and running,” she said. “The agencies are trying to work on this. As the word gets out, I think that money is going to go quick.”

Norwich Human Services Director Lee-Ann Gomes said her agency received 41 grants in the initial round and has started qualifying applicants. While she and her staff are very familiar with many Norwich applicants, she has reached out to the first selectmen and human services agencies in the surrounding towns, assuring that some grants will be reserved for their residents.

“It’s very 21st century,” Gomes said. “The money comes via smartphone to an electronic wallet and shows as an electronic Mastercard to swipe at grocery stores and vendors.”

Susan Sedensky, executive director of the Pawcatuck Neighborhood Center, said her agency has received 15 grants for Stonington and North Stonington.

She said the center is very familiar with its clients and also is hearing the stories from new clients, so it knows who would benefit from the new program. She said applying is very easy for people. Anyone interested can contact the neighborhood center through its website, pawcatuckneighborhoodcenter.org.

Sedensky said she expects there will be more grants after the initial round because of the need. "It’s a start," she said.

Groton Human Services was given 37 grants of $200 each to assist people living in Groton or Ledyard, said Heidi McSwain, agency financial assistant.

After starting last Wednesday, Groton Human Services granted applications to 21 people, the vast majority of whom had either lost their jobs or had their hours significantly cut due to the pandemic, she said. Four people are from Ledyard, while the rest were Groton residents.

“I’m sure it’s helping with all types of household expenses that people have,” McSwain said.

Groton Human Services posted information about the program on Facebook, received referrals and helped some clients. Most applicants were new to Groton Human Services, and many are people living paycheck to paycheck who likely suddenly found themselves struggling.

McSwain added that right after United Way sent the email, the program was up and running.

“So far we haven’t had any issues with people having any trouble logging in and getting their money right away,” she said, “so they did a really great job of getting this up and running very fast for people.”

Day Staff Writers Kimberly Drelich and Joe Wojtas contributed to this report.

c.bessette@theday.com

Editor's Note: This version corrects how the program is administered.

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