The Charleston Trident United Way is distributing more than $400,000 to help local families struggling in a tough economy, officials announced Thursday.

The money from the federal Emergency Food and Shelter Program will go to multiple area agencies that provide assistance for individuals without food or shelter. It's emergency money but not an emergency allocation, said Barry Waldman, vice president for communications.

With unemployment reaching into the 8.2 percent range in the Lowcountry, even formerly middle-class families are struggling to meet their basic needs, group leaders said.

Local United Way officials have recorded a 50 percent increase in calls from people unable to make home payments. Demand for food at the Lowcountry Food Bank is up more than 20 percent since last year.

The "shelter" assistance covers rent or mortgage to help keep people in their homes, and in some cases, the first month's rent to help someone who is earning an income to get from a shelter and into a rental unit.

The total funding breakdown includes $216,922 for Charleston County; $109,599 for Dorchester County; and $81,706 for Berkeley County.

A key aspect of the distribution decision is that a new method was used to ensure the funds were sent to sometimes hard-to-reach geographic regions.

The system, dubbed Trident United Way's Community Issues Management, combines databases of local and national information with mapping technology to guide the distribution decision-making process. The effort is a partnership with the University of Missouri, other organizations from around the country, along with Trident United Way.

"The board worked hard to ensure the funds were spread geographically so that people did not have to travel so far to receive funding," said Cathy Easley, vice president of Community Response Services at the Trident United Way.