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In the best of times, many thousands of New Yorkers find themselves in need on any given day. For the hungry, homeless and hurting, Catholic Charities of New York and its many affiliated organizations form a crucial lifeline. In times of crisis, the needs intensify and multiply.
In early 2020, when Covid-19 first appeared in the region, Catholic Charities immediately pivoted, not just to safely meet the increased needs brought on by the immediate outbreak but also to anticipate the long-term economic and social damage that would follow.
For this edition, Archways asked three of the organization’s leaders for an inside glance at how Catholic Charities has responded to the crisis of 2020 and a look at the challenges ahead. Kelvin Gentles, the director of development, leads efforts to secure the donations that make the ministry possible; Richard Espinal, associate director for parish and community engagement, coordinates direct on-the-ground services; and Shannon Kelly, deputy CEO of Catholic Charities of Orange, Sullivan and Ulster, oversees operations in the northernmost counties of the archdiocese.
Richard Espinal This pandemic affirmed what we knew about the disparities that exist in our society. It also shifted the thinking about “essential workers” as not just being police, EMTs and those in the hospitals, but also grocery cashiers, restaurant deliverymen and all of the people whose jobs are critically important but who never get recognition as such, and certainly never receive the wages to reflect it. Unfortunately, that also means those among us who are scraping just to survive are also the ones at greater risk, not only of getting infected but of losing everything.
Kelvin Gentles We’ve learned how to pivot to an online platform for our development needs. The more typical approach to fundraising is usually person to person. We have learned to accomplish the same goals with virtual events.
The biggest surprise has been the outpouring of generosity from our existing donors and those new to Catholic Charities. Many have really been keen on food relief. People who usually give $100 annually have given $1,000.
Shannon Kelly I think there are lessons learned about resilience and what it means to be a hero. For me, the front-line staff in our residential treatment services – nurses, counselors, aides, custodians, cooks, etc. – have been true heroes. Their commitment in showing up every day to work with those in our care has been tremendously impressive.
Shannon Kelly We collaborated with parishes early on to make sure that folks ineligible for unemployment or stimulus funding had access to financial resources. At a time when parishes may have been restricted in terms of gatherings, pastors and lay leaders from around our counties made it a priority to ensure Catholic Charities representatives could meet with folks in need on parish grounds.
Kelvin Gentles New York Catholics have rallied to help their local church food pantries. Without their support, we could not have expanded our food operation, we could not have extended cash assistance to those on the verge of eviction. Many parishioners have given generously to ensure that their churches remain open, and have pivoted readily from giving in the pews to online offering systems.
Richard Espinal We have seen parishes do everything from serving as COVID-19 testing sites to hosting food distributions and even parish-based sewing groups making masks. As happened in the aftermath of 9/11 or Hurricane Sandy, New Yorkers will come together to lift each other up.
Unfortunately, even with all the efforts currently in place, more and more people are struggling to hang on and too many are slipping through the cracks. Just checking in on a neighbor is important, so that at the very least, more of us will get to see “normal” again.
The Road Ahead
Richard Espinal When the health crisis is resolved, we will have to deal with three major issues: housing, unemployment and mental health. With so many people having fallen behind on rent, we anticipate a very serious housing crisis, and we know government eviction protections will not last forever. Stable housing is essential to any kind of recovery, and we will be working hard to keep our clients in their homes.
Concerning jobs, the economic downturn brought on by the pandemic is going to take time to turn around and many of our usual clients are the first to be laid off and the last to be rehired.
Lastly, the “silent” pandemic that we cannot ignore is the lingering mental health effects on adults and children. For the past year, we have had to deal with heightened levels of stress and anxiety. Many of us have been isolated, and those of us who have lost someone have not been able to grieve as we might have done in the past. Mental health is something that people tend to sweep under the rug but we will need to make sure that we keep it in the spotlight.
Collectively, it will be crucial for all New Yorkers to stay committed for the long haul. We still have a long way to go and we cannot allow “Covid fatigue” to stop us from supporting each other.
Kelvin Gentles Looking at the challenges ahead, I hope that those who have given during the crisis continue to give. In the past few months, a balance of government and private funding has allowed us to achieve incredible things. Eventually, though, state help to prevent New Yorkers from being kicked out of their residences will end, and then we will have to be there to provide stipends and help with legal issues. For those who are at the margins, it typically takes years to rebuild after a disaster.
Shannon Kelly Our focus will be on the increase in substance use as folks deal with anxiety, isolation and grief, as well as the basic human needs of those affected by prolonged loss of income. In terms of substance use, we will need all New Yorkers to let go of the stigma that prevents them from seeking help or from encouraging their loved ones to seek help. To continue to respond to basic human needs we are looking for tangible support – donations of both funding and goods, volunteers at our sites and pop-up pantries, et cetera. There is no shortage of ways to help.
Richard Espinal Racism is antithetical to our core belief at Catholic Charities in the dignity of every human being, made in the image and likeness of God. We will continue to provide services to people of all backgrounds, but we recognize that we have an obligation to those on the margins and to support efforts that place an emphasis on justice and reconciliation. We have already collaborated with interfaith partners to speak out against the evils of racism and have provided funding through the Catholic Charities Campaign for Charity and Justice to parishes working to address this evil from within. We have also looked to our own operations and policies and to places like our Lt. Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Memorial Center in Harlem to become beacons for racial justice, dialogue and reconciliation.
Shannon Kelly Most of our Catholic Charities agency programs are an incredibly rich, diverse intersection of clients, staff, volunteers, donors, board members and other partners from all backgrounds. It is our responsibility to ensure that all voices are heard, particularly those that have been marginalized by systemic racism.
Kelvin Gentles By the nature of our work, we have and will continue to do a lot when it comes to social justice and the unfair treatment of low-income communities and the undocumented. When it comes to racial justice, Msgr. Kevin Sullivan, executive director of Catholic Charities of New York, has worked with his senior staff to ensure we are at the forefront of these issues as an organization. Catholic Charities’ makeup and approach matches the communities that we serve.