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Maintaining social distancing practice, the WARM Center continues to distribute lunches of sandwiches and chips to clients in spite of COVID-19 restrictions that have impacted other services at the shelter. Personal care items are also still being distributed according to Russ Partridge, executive director of the center. Harold Hanka, The Westerly Sun

Grants from a charitable foundation to two social service agencies in the region will help address what the executive director of one of the organizations sees as a potential "catastrophe" wrought by COVID-19 and its effect on the economy.

The WARM Center in Westerly will use the $75,000 grant it recently received from the Rhode Island Foundation to provide case management services and rental and utility assistance to help people affected by the COVID-19 crisis remain in their homes and avoid utility shut-offs. The organization reports a 35% increase in the number of households served by its community outreach coordinator through June.

Tri-County Community Action Agency, which also received a $75,000 from the foundation, will use its funds to distribute grocery store gift cards and vouchers good at local retailers, provide funding for items not traditionally covered by state or federal support programs such as eyeglasses, over-the-counter medications and personal care items; provide emergency housing assistance and purchase sometimes hard to find items such as toilet paper, hand soap, paper towels, hand sanitizer and antiseptic wipes to distribute to elderly residents who are sheltering in place. The agency's service area includes Westerly, Charlestown, Richmond and Hopkinton.

Russ Partridge, WARM Center executive director, said the grants, which were announced Sunday morning, come at a good time as summer jobs come to an end.

"We will stretch all the available resources to ensure every person who has been financially impacted by this debilitating epidemic gets the help they seek. We will work with landlords to keep individuals and families in their homes. These people are typically living paycheck to paycheck and if WARM can help them pay their rent, they will be able to regain their footing. With this unpredicted outbreak and so many people already facing financial instability, this crisis could be catastrophic," Partridge said in a news release from the foundation.

During an interview on Tuesday, Partridge said the COVID-19 pandemic is hurting most segments of society either through the illness itself or through economic strain.

"We are starting to see a whole new line of people facing overdue rent and a challenge to afford food," Partridge said.

While enhanced unemployment benefits provided a cushion for some, Partridge predicted the funds will quickly be depleted by families and individuals struggling to find work.

"I see it from both sides. The landlords need the rent money to pay their mortgages. This is impacting everyone regardless of what side you are on," Partridge said.

The center will work hard to help people stay in their homes and apartments, Partridge said. Otherwise people who are struggling financially find themselves homeless and needing to come up with money to cover first and last month rent as well as a security deposit.

"Keeping people housed is a huge priority and the Rhode Island Foundation really did step up to help us and a lot of agencies throughout the state. We really could not do it without them," Partridge said.

Joe DeSantis, executive director of Tri-County Community Action Agency , said the effects of the pandemic have hurt the most vulnerable.

"Many clients have lost all or part of their income due to layoffs and closures. This has disproportionately affected low-wage workers and the elderly, who often rely on family to supplement their fixed income," DeSantis said in the release.

WARM Center and Tri-County Community Action Agency are two of 19 organizations across the state to receive a total of $1 million in the latest round of grants from the foundation's COVID-19 Response Fund. All of the grants will be used to help state residents with food, rent, utilities and other expenses.

"Rhode Islanders are struggling to afford basic necessities. These grants will help backbone community service organizations around the state fill the gaps as people deal with having even fewer resources," said Neil D. Steinberg, president and CEO of the foundation. "We are so grateful to the donors who have stepped up throughout the pandemic. We will continue to connect with charitable Rhode Islanders to support the nonprofit organizations on the front lines of providing critical community services."

With this round of grants, the COVID-19 Response Fund at the foundation has raised and awarded approximately $7 million since March 27 focused on those most vulnerable to the impact of the pandemic. The grants range from $10,000 to $75,000.

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