'Fundraise for the most vulnerable': GoFundMe campaigns fill gaps before government aid kicks in

·Reporter
·5 min read

One Well Brewing, once a bustling neighborhood restaurant and bar serving 300 people on weekends in Kalamazoo, Michigan, now sees maybe five customers a day for take-out orders because of the coronavirus outbreak. As a result, owner Chris O’Neill has cut his average employees’ hourly wages by 90%.

He knows a missed paycheck can mean eviction or homelessness for some of his staffers as they wait for unemployment benefits to kick in or government stimulus checks up to $1,200 to arrive.

“I have an employee in a shelter right now,” he said. “I’m unable to provide for my people. I know the government is trying to do whatever it can, but how long do you wait?”

In the meantime, O’Neill has turned to GoFundMe to help his employees. His is one of the tens of thousands of fundraisers that have popped up on the crowdfunding site in response to the COVID-19, said Melanie Yost, a GoFundMe spokesperson.

Chris O'neill, owner of One Well Brewing in Kalamazoo, Michigan
Chris O'Neill, owner of One Well Brewing in Kalamazoo, Michigan. (Photo: Chris O'Neill)

“We have seen an immense amount of global support on GoFundMe as communities band together across the globe to fundraise for the most vulnerable,” Yost said.

Many of these campaigns are attempting to fill in gaps until the government steps in — the federal loan program for small businesses has had a slow start and overwhelmed unemployment systems are delaying benefits.

Other do-gooders are helping to relieve the shortage of vital equipment in hospitals that state governments are desperately trying to procure.

‘How long is that going to last?’

In a different time, One Well Brewing’s dozens of loyal customers would leave behind personalized mugs at the brewery with the intention they’d return again for discounted drinks.

“We want to be the neighborhood ‘Cheers’ place,” said O’Neill. Now, “we have seen former customers give $20, $50 even $100. It’s been very emotional.”

One Well Brewing, once a bustling neighborhood hotspot serving 300 people on weekends in Kalamazoo, Michigan, now sees maybe five customers a day for take-out orders
One Well Brewing, once a bustling neighborhood hotspot serving 300 people on weekends in Kalamazoo, Michigan, now sees maybe five customers a day for take-out orders. (Photo: Chris O'Neill)

The GoFundMe fundraiser has exceeded its $10,700 goal. O’Neill himself has promised to match the first $10,000 in donations. While O’Neill exudes gratitude, he still worries about how far these donations can stretch.

“The $20,000, which even looking at the numbers would mean giving full-timers $550 bucks and $350 for part-timers,” O’Neill said. “How long is that going to last?”

‘I was worried for them’

High schoolers William and Athena Wu have jumped into the efforts to help their local hospital to pay for supplies. UMass Memorial has resorted to reusing masks due to a shortage, and to sanitize the N95 masks, staff are using UV machines. It’s a problem that many hospitals nationwide are grappling with.

“I was extremely shocked, even horrified to learn that doctors and those fighting on the front lines struggled to keep themselves safe,” William Wu, 14, told Yahoo Money. “They had to go to work and risk getting extremely sick simply because they didn’t have the equipment.”

High schoolers William and Athena Wu have jumped into the efforts to help their local hospital to pay for supplies
High schoolers William and Athena Wu have jumped into the efforts to help their local hospital to pay for supplies

“I was worried for them and wanted to do everything in my power to help them,” he said.

While quarantined at home, they did outreach through Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook and Whatsapp. The siblings have exceeded 50% of their $5,000 GoFundMe goal in a matter of weeks that the hospital can use to purchase masks.

“It’s been a variety of people donating, but also a lot of people I don’t know,” William said. “I really wanted to give back.”

‘Not built for a national catastrophe’

In Chicago, Jason Friedman’s company, the Footman Hospitality Group, has closed the doors to its eight drinking and dining establishments. Sales at the company dipped by 10% the second week of March and then plunged by 90% the next week.

“Our reliance on everyday things like business meals to catering to tourists has essentially disappeared,” said Friedman, who is the managing partner.

Friedman, who is looking into the Food and Drug Administration’s small business disaster fund, is concerned about making rent, which takes up 15% of his monthly revenue. He also worries about his 123-person staff, who he can’t pay now.

Friedman can’t pay any of his 123-person staff, but has been helping them file for unemployment benefits, which has turned into its own frustration.
Friedman can’t pay any of his 123-person staff, but has been helping them file for unemployment benefits, which has turned into its own frustration.

He created a GoFundMe campaign to recoup even more of their lost paychecks. Typically, So far, it has raised over $26,000 in the past two weeks, just over half of its $50,000 goal.

He’s also helping them file for unemployment benefits, which has turned into its own frustration as more requests flood in.

“The phone lines are constantly busy,” he said. “Even the online system was so overloaded with requests that most of my [employees] couldn’t get through on the website.”

In the last three weeks alone, more than 16 million of American workers have filed for jobless claims. The State of Illinois saw unemployment claims top 200,000, a 13% increase from the week prior.

“The bandwidth of local unemployment benefits programs is not built for a national catastrophe,” he said.

Dhara Singh is a reporter at Cashay and Yahoo Money. Follow her on Twitter at @Dsinghx.

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