Catholic non-profits innovate as coronavirus pandemic spreads

Catholic non-profits innovate as coronavirus pandemic spreads

Boxes of meals for the new curbside pickup service at the Catholic Charities Neighborhood Center in Wheeling, West Virginia. (Credit: Katie Hinerman/Courtesy to Crux.)

From telehealth counseling to mobile shower trucks, Catholic non-profits are shifting gears to meet spiking needs and anxieties among the most vulnerable populations in the COVID-19 pandemic.

CINCINNATI, Ohio – From telehealth counseling to mobile shower trucks, Catholic non-profits are shifting gears to meet spiking needs and anxieties among the most vulnerable populations in the COVID-19 pandemic.

“When things of this nature happen, it’s usually the people already in precarious situations who suffer the most,” Art Bennett, President and CEO of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia, told Crux.

As social distancing and remain-at-home directives sweep the nation, non-profit leaders like Bennett are working to ensure the safety of their employees and volunteers while simultaneously developing new ways continue to serve their clients.

“We have always taken Pope Francis’s image of the church as a field hospital and seen ourselves as striving to live out that vision. Now, just like a hospital, our facilities have to remain very clean, very neat, and very safety-oriented so that we can continue to help people,” said Bennett.

For example, concerns for both safety and ease of access have led the Arlington non-profit to migrate to a HIPAA-compliant video conferencing system for its free counseling services.

“We have seen a real increase in loneliness and the risk of depression, compounded by feelings of powerlessness, of not knowing what’s going on or being able to help loved ones, or having increased financial worry,” explained Dr. Michael Horne, Director of Clinical Services for the Arlington diocese.

Through the new telehealth system, Horne’s team has been able to connect with more than just their usual clients. “We’re now able to reach people in remote areas, rural areas, and people with working hours who can’t normally make our regular office hours, so our access to people has actually dramatically increased during this period,” Horne told Crux.

Cathy Hassinger, Director of Community Services for Arlington’s Catholic Charities, has seen mounting evidence – one of their food pantries doubled the number of clients it served in just four days while their emergency financial assistance phone line has had twice the normal calls – of the pandemic’s deepening impact on society’s most vulnerable.

“From our folks experiencing homelessness, some of what we’re hearing is actual fear. Several of them have self-selected not to come to receive services that they need because of the fear that they might contract the virus, and the uncertainty about whether they could receive adequate health care if they were to contract it,” she said.

Hassinger also expressed concern for individuals who have housing but live paycheck-to-paycheck – recent estimates suggest that nearly 4 in 5 U.S. workers fall into this category – noting that they’re frequently hearing about people’s hours being limited or jobs being cut, which has left people with “major uncertainties about their benefits and financial obligations.”

Mike Dunn, Executive Director of the St. Vincent de Paul Society in Cincinnati, Ohio, voiced similar worries about the disproportionate impact on the paycheck-to-paycheck population, telling Crux that when these people are laid off, “they simply don’t have savings and rarely have a network to bail them out, because just about everyone they know is in the same situation.”

“For our country, the greatest country on the planet, to have that many people living paycheck-to-paycheck, is a huge problem that this crisis is going to bring to the forefront,” he added.

Dunn’s agency has been forced to make several difficult changes to the way it delivers its essential services, shuttering all seven of its regional thrift stores, stopping all volunteer groups at its main outreach center, and shifting from a choice pantry setup to curbside meal pickups.

“The scary part is that this has all just started,” he said. “As much as it seems like a lifetime ago, based on the projections we’re all hearing, we’ve got a lot still to come.”

“I think that people are still on adrenaline, wanting to rally and do the right thing, but as this thing draws out it’s going to get really difficult. So we’re going to have to get very creative,” added Dunn.

In neighboring West Virginia – the 50th and final state to record a positive coronavirus test – a glimpse of that creativity can be seen in the form of a mobile shower station that arrived in Wheeling on Thursday.

According to Mark Phillips, Northern Regional Director for West Virginia’s Catholic Charities, coronavirus safety concerns had led to restricted access to facilities like the Catholic Charities Neighborhood Center, inadvertently leaving people scrambling to find a place to shower, do laundry, or simply get inside during heavy rains and cold temperatures.

After learning that a single Catholic Worker house was the only place left in the city for the homeless to safely shower, Phillips started looking for a solution. He finally found it in the form of a partnership among Catholic Charities, the Catholic Worker house, and American Baptist Men, who own a mobile shower truck in Ripley, West Virginia, that has been used in other disaster efforts. American Baptist Men has parked the unit outside the Neighborhood Center for the next three months.

“People don’t generally think about a day in the life of someone who is experiencing homelessness and, nationally, we’re not thinking about that population right now, but they’re a very high-risk group” Phillips told Crux. “At this difficult moment, there’s very little access to even the bare minimum things that make you feel human.”

According to these Catholic non-profit leaders, steady support for the people who provide essential services to vulnerable populations, whether it be doctors and nurses or food pantry employees, must be a priority in the weeks and months ahead.

“If I could urge anything for people, it’s that if you can’t contribute financially, please just be kind to folks who are in essential services, many of whom don’t have the option of not going to work,” said Phillips. “It’s a difficult time, but without that group of people, everyone’s in trouble.”

Dunn pointed out that “the small things matter” when it comes to caring for those in essential services, encouraging people to make simple gestures like thank you notes and gift cards to “let folks know that they’re appreciated for what they’re doing during this crisis time.”

Noting that caregiver fatigue will take an additional toll as caregivers find their feet and develop routines in the weeks ahead, Horne advised everyone to practice self-care to put themselves in better position to care for the people around them.

He also highlighted the importance of “maintaining an appropriate connection with God,” resisting despair, and finding ways to remain connected to one’s faith community.


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