The following is an excerpt from an address by Pope Benedict XVI to Catholic…
Catholic charity groups adjust to increase in need, decrease in funding
An aid worker from Catholic Charities of Southeast Michigan recently delivered food to an elderly resident in Detroit. The senior citizen, who had been isolated for weeks because of the coronavirus pandemic, told the Catholic Charities worker that they were the first person who had been to the house in more than a month.
“That’s the kind of story we’re seeing that makes us feel we’re meeting a need, that God is leaning on us to do this work,” said Paul Propson, the chief executive officer for Catholic Charities of Southeast Michigan.
The pandemic, which as of mid-May had killed more than 85,000 Americans and infected more than 1.4 million people in the United States, in many ways is making the work of Catholic Charities and other Church-affiliated aid agencies more important than ever.
The elderly and immuno-compromised are the most vulnerable to COVID-19, making it necessary that they stay home. That, in turn, has created a need for Catholic Charities agencies from Miami to Los Angeles to focus efforts on making sure their elderly clients not only have access to food and medicine, but that someone is regularly calling them to make sure they are OK.
“If interventions are needed, then we’ll send someone out to them,” said Msgr. Alfred LoPinto, president and CEO of Catholic Charities of Brooklyn & Queens, which operates 21 residential facilities for thousands of elderly people in New York City’s two largest boroughs.
Along with the elderly, others are struggling because the highly contagious and potentially deadly virus has prompted state government officials to place restrictions on which businesses can be open and how they operate, causing the federal unemployment rate to reach levels not seen since the Great Depression. More than 30 million people across the country have filed for unemployment benefits over the last two months. Because of these economic hardships, Catholic Charities has seen an increased demand for rental and utility assistance, and food pantries are in demand more than ever.
“The pantries are running out of food quickly. As much food as we can bring in, it’s being distributed out to people who need food right away,” said John Westervelt, the CEO of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey.
To keep the stocks shelved at the more than 80 food pantries in northern New Jersey that his agency provides food for every month, Westervelt told Our Sunday Visitor that the Knights of Columbus gave Catholic Charities a $50,000 grant to purchase and distribute food. That kind of generosity is helping the agencies at a time when financial donations to the parishes and other Church-related charities are down across the board.
“People don’t have as much money to give to charity because they barely have enough money to survive on their own,” Westervelt said.
Adapting to the times
The financial difficulties, the need to provide food and services to vulnerable and isolated seniors, the mental health needs of their clients and the challenges of keeping frontline workers safe in the field have created a complicated, layered picture for Catholic Charities agencies that have been operating nonstop since the pandemic shut down the Church and most of civil society in the United States in mid-March.
Just like how many parishes and Catholic schools have done, the aid agencies have moved most of their operations online, relying especially on telehealth to maintain their mental health and substance abuse counseling services.
“Our counseling has gone totally to telehealth, and that’s worked out well,” said Peter Routsis-Arroyo, the CEO of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Miami.
Routsis-Arroyo told Our Sunday Visitor that the pandemic has forced Catholic Charities agencies everywhere to adapt and change their usual operating procedures. In normal circumstances, his agency operates a large network of senior centers for the elderly to gather.
“We have transitioned that whole program,” Routsis-Arroyo said. “It’s gone overnight from a Monday-through-Friday program where we were having 700 in social gatherings at senior centers to now where we are delivering well over 1,000 meals a day to their homes, seven days as week.”
In Brooklyn and Queens, Catholic Charities operates a Meals on Wheels program and works with vendors and other providers to deliver hot meals to the agency’s senior housing facilities. Msgr. LoPinto told Our Sunday Visitor that the Meals on Wheels service provides 2,000 meals a day.
“We really have not closed anything,” Msgr. LoPinto said. “We’ve refocused ourselves so that we can keep everything going to the best of our ability.”
Caring for aid workers
In Detroit, a coronavirus hot spot, Propson told Our Sunday Visitor that financial donations from the local community have helped to maintain the services provided by Catholic Charities of Southeast Michigan.
“Pretty much everyone around here knows someone who has died from the disease or certainly someone who is hospitalized with the disease,” said Propson, who added that everything from counseling to the agency’s adoption and foster care programs are now operated online.
“At times, the staff has to go out and do an in-person activity with the child and family, but that’s rare,” Propson said. “We have enough staff in the child welfare program that people who are comfortable going out can go out, and people who are not comfortable or who are vulnerable do not have to leave their homes.”
The agencies are allowing staff members to work from home, and several have provided them with laptop computers and smartphones. The Catholic Charities organizations in the coronavirus hotspots at times have struggled to obtain masks and other personal protective equipment for their workers in the field.
“Getting the personal protective equipment for the staff was slow in coming,” Routsis-Arroyo said. “We knew we didn’t want to take resources away from hospitals, but you could see in the process of the pandemic that the anxiety level of our staff was starting to grow as we were asking them to do more and more. But then we get our hands on (personal protective equipment), and that really helped the staff just to feel safer and to reduce their anxiety level.”
Like many Americans, the frontline workers of Catholic Charities are not only having to worry about social distancing and keeping themselves safe, but also whether they will be laid off or furloughed at some point. For now, perhaps reflecting the high priority that the Church places on its social ministries, the agencies contacted by Our Sunday Visitor said they have not had to resort to layoffs or staff cuts. Some have obtained forgivable loans through the federal government to keep their operations going.
“We have an aggressive fundraising component. We also have been fortunate in getting sizable grants and private donations from supporters,” Msgr. LoPinto said. “That’s what’s keeping us afloat at this point.”
That’s not to say, however, that the agencies will not be feeling long-term effects. In Newark, where Catholic Charities this year had to cancel its biggest annual fundraising gala, Westervelt is having to plan for the next fiscal year with an expected loss of revenue of at least $200,000. He plans to maintain “status quo” staffing levels and programs, but said there will be no salary raises or any upgrades to the agency’s IT department.
“We’re only budgeting for what we think we’ll get, not for what we would have gotten before the pandemic hit,” said Westervelt, who added that he expects “an influx” of federal aid money to help those in need when the lockdowns begin to be lifted.
Said Westervelt, “We’ll probably be busier than ever trying to get that money to the people in need.”
Brian Fraga is a contributing editor for Our Sunday Visitor.