Catholic Social Services finds new ways to support the vulnerable

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When “social” is part of your name, the challenges to deliver services when social distancing is mandated can be daunting, but manageable. Catholic Social Services (CSS) is navigating a new way to reach out to the marginalized, the poor, and the homeless as restrictions are placed on all human activity, due to the unprecedented spread of COVID-19, the novel coronavirus, which has taken over 80,000 lives in the United States alone.

Perhaps the most visible innovation, according to Molly Cornish, Community Engagement Manager for the organization, was the opening of Ben Boeke and Sullivan Arenas to house the homeless. The Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) mandate for six-foot social distancing could be more easily maintained at these much larger sites than at Brother Francis Shelter (BFS), which regularly reaches its maximum capacity of 240 individuals. Cornish said she was impressed by the response of municipal, state and federal governments, which had programmatic changes in the works before the arrival of COVID-19. Additional grant money provided for the necessary monitoring of guests to maintain their safety. Donors stepped up with meals, supplies and other items to keep guests engaged and, as much as possible, socially distanced from the larger community.

The two sports arenas took the overflow from BFS, which currently houses an at-risk population; the elderly, and those with disabilities and mobility challenges, Cornish said. Approximately 100 to 120 individuals are housed in the 3rd Avenue facility, where they can more easily maintain social distance from one another. Unlike in the past, where the shelter opened in the early evening and turned clients out to the streets in the morning, they are now urged to literally shelter in place, where meals are provided for them, despite the closing of Beans Café next door.

At the makeshift shelters in midtown, resource tents have been set up in the Sullivan Arena parking lot. “Here, clients and residents meet with case managers who help prevent people from losing housing, and work to provide permanent housing,” Cornish said. Clients also have access to medical care. “The community response has been wonderful,” Cornish said, and added, “The residents seem happy, they have more space, more showers available. Everyone is a little more at ease.”

Government mandates have led to the suspension of volunteer programs, upon which programs within CSS have long depended. At Saint Francis House, some of the folks who previously helped clients select food from the eastside pantry have shifted to stocking shelves and cleaning, while maintaining social distance. Pre-packaged boxes of food are picked up by clients who are served by CSS personnel behind plexiglass windows and wearing proper personal protective equipment (PPE). Cornish said the facility is a “client-based pantry” and offerings are tailored to family size and dietary preferences, as much as possible.

According to Cornish, Saint Francis House has seen a 30% increase in new applicants, and a 50% increase in people served, with the resultant job losses and changes to the economy caused by COVID-19.

The food pantry has been able to meet the increasing demand through donations from individuals and churches like Saint Benedict parish, which recently dropped off 100 pounds of food. The federal Temporary Emergency Food Assistance Program, state and local programs, as well as retailers like Costco and Walmart, have also helped fill the shelves at Saint Francis House.

Across town, at Clare House, Sharese Hughes is grateful there is extra space at the shelter for women and their children to accommodate social distancing mandates. Rooms, typically rented to clients, are now available at no cost, so each family group has its own small space. The program currently houses 50 to 60 individuals.

Giving families more room has meant a loss of revenue for the program, but there has been a commensurate increase in donations. New guidelines for dropping off items for the shelter and all of CSS’s programs have been implemented and are detailed at their website: cssalaska.org. Clare House meals had been temporarily suspended, with food initially provided by Providence Hospital. The volunteer meal program has since been reinstated, to the delight of both the residents and those who have provided meals for many years, Hughes said.

Like many CSS programs, Clare House relies heavily on volunteers who are no longer available to provide respite services for moms, to help with child care and various activities. Last year, decreases in state funding threatened to close the facility for several hours a day. Volunteers stepped in to fill the gap in staffing. The loss of those volunteers has been challenging and required sacrifices on the part of staff and clients. “It bothers me when I have to make certain decisions to keep clients and staff safe,” Hughes said. Such choices were to suspend clients having guests and to keep children, for the most part, inside the facility and in their assigned rooms.

“We are still making sure they are safe and not getting cabin fever,” Hughes said of her charges, many whom have experienced abuse and trauma, “So much has been taken from them.” Keeping open the lines of communications and staying positive in light of all the recent challenges is of utmost importance. Hughes said, “It will take all of us to make things work.”

Refugee and Immigration Services continues its work despite re-settlement efforts recently having come to a halt, according to program director Issa Spatrisano. Earlier arrivals are still in need of services. “Documents expire and need to be renewed,” Spatrisano said. Services have been delayed, and families that were ready to travel to Alaska to reunite with loved ones face uncertainty, she added.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) Justice for Immigrants campaign works to ensure immigrants are given fair treatment in meeting requirements made more difficult in light of COVID-19. “From the refugee side, any challenge to that system is a challenge to us,” added Spatrisano, whose organization works closely with the USCCB.

RAIS Welcome Center, housed on the grounds of Saint Anthony parish, is currently closed. Closing the center, adjacent to a community garden where many of RAIS clients grow vegetables to feed families and earn extra income, was not an easy decision to make, said Spatrisano. “We are hoping to get to a place where the garden can be opened safely,” she added.

The center, which helps with life skills, navigating unfamiliar environments, and learning English, was seen as a place of gathering, especially for children. “It is hard to teach them to socially distance,” said Spatrisano, but RAIS is following guidelines set forth by the Anchorage School District. The program has received a grant to provide phones for individuals, “but digital literacy might be something they may not have,” she said.

There is an added challenge “to make sure persons not in Anchorage get equitable service,” Spatrisano said—about 30% of RAIS clientele. Telephonic case management and utilization of web-based teleconferencing formats, such as Zoom, has ensured equal access to the program’s services.

“Our staff is as diverse as the persons we re-settle; a vast majority were once refugees themselves,” Spatrisano said of the multi-talented individuals who bring their many skills to serve a population with diverse needs—among them the ability to speak a variety of languages.

For those with special needs, Family Disability Services continues its work, complying with mandates set forth by the Office of Children’s Services. “We are still doing direct services,” said Cornish, while ensuring client and staff safety through the use of proper PPE. “If anyone’s able to work from home, we’re doing that,” she added. Pregnancy Support and Adoption Services also continues to serve clients virtually.

According to Cornish, Catholic Social Services “prides ourselves in meeting people where they are.” Program staff are on the front lines with PPE, continually cleaning the environments where clients are served. While the work is undoubtedly challenging, she couldn’t say enough about how the staff is flexible and creative in rising to the challenge.

“Being apart physically has made me realize how strong and committed our team is. Even though we don’t see each other as often, we are still very connected and working hard to solve problems at hand,” Cornish stated.

Robin Dempsey, chief program officer for CSS, bolstered that statement with her reflections on the challenges presented by COVID-19. Referencing the steps CSS staff has taken to mitigate infection while serving clients, she said,“On these difficult days I’m reminded that sometimes you must look past the masks, shields and gloves. Past all the PPE and the distance between you and another, is the hope and perseverance within our programs that is so apparent it seems almost tangible. Despite changes and challenges, one thing remains—the resiliency, hard work and enduring spirit of our staff and supporters.… We compassionately serve the poor and those in need, strengthen individuals and families, and advocate for social justice.”

One indispensable feature common to the work of the agency is the support and dedication of the community. According to Cornish, “As soon as the hunker down order was issued, we received a lot of inquiries about how to help. It’s extremely heartening to see that type of response from our community. Despite personal challenges or concerns, many of our supporters’ first response was, ‘how can I help?’”

Dempsey concluded, “I cannot express how grateful I am to our donors and our staff, and how inspired I am by their dedication. We have already done so much, and we will continue to serve our community, despite what challenges may arise. We are resilient. We are Catholic Social Services.”


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