A conversation with Msgr. Kevin Sullivan

As America battles the coronavirus, the poor and the vulnerable are suffering disproportionately – and the delivery of services to them has become exponentially more difficult. Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York serves hundreds of thousands of the underserved – the hungry, the homeless, the addicted, the psychologically afflicted, refugees and asylum-seekers and other victims of social injustice – when there is no one else to help them. On April 2, Archways editor Michael S. Cain spoke with Catholic Charities of New York Executive Director Msgr. Kevin Sullivan to get his take on the plight facing needy New Yorkers now and the challenge of serving them during a pandemic.  

Msgr. Kevin Sullivan, executive director of Catholic Charities of New York, introduces a discussion of homelessness and programs to address it at the HOPE 2020 PreCount Panel, January 27.

Archways: We are in the midst of a national emergency the likes of which most of us have not seen in our lifetimes. How is Covid-19 impacting the client base of Catholic Charities and its agencies? How is Catholic Charities responding? 

Monsignor Sullivan: Catholic Charities is open for business. The problems that people had before Covid-19, people still have. People who didn’t have enough money for food or to pay the rent – they still have those problems now. If they have emotional problems or chemical dependency problems, those problems didn’t go away because we’ve now had this pandemic and this crisis. In fact, they’ve been exacerbated in many ways. So Catholic Charities continues to provide services to those people – in a number of cases, with severe adjustments in how we do it. And with some challenge. 

For example: We still have people who are in residences because of developmental disabilities. They need personal care. They need people to go in and help them to get through the day. You can’t do that type of work socially distanced. So our workers are continuing to perform those services. We obviously want to ensure their safety. To that end, we reduced the number of people we are sending in, but you can’t reduce that number to zero. 

Then, if you look at our food pantries: There are still hungry people in neighborhoods. What we have been trying to do in the past four or five years is to make those food pantries what we call “client choice.” People come in, they “shop” a little bit in the food pantry, and they choose the particular foods they want within guidelines that govern quantity and encourage good nutrition. We believe having a choice enhances the dignity of the people coming in. 

Well… you can’t do that now. You can’t just let everyone in to look over the selections. So we’ve closed client choice. At this time, for the most part, we pack the food and put it outside in boxes so people can grab the food and go at a social distance. 

Those are two very concrete examples of our services that are still going on but have been significantly impacted by Covid-19. 

Archways:  What steps are Catholic Charities and its affiliate agencies taking to protect staff, clients and volunteers? 

Monsignor Sullivan: We live in perilous times. So we’re doing everything that we possibly can to ensure the safety of our staff in the midst of this pandemic. We’re following all the recommendations, and putting out to all of our staff the CDC protocols, the department of health directives. We are working remotely to the greatest extent possible. We have reduced the number of staff who are at our residences to the minimum.

Our goal is to stay open, delivering services, and at the same time to follow the protocols that are required. To the greatest extent possible, we are using all the personal protective equipment that is available – but as we’ve all read, there is a shortage of this equipment. We are taking advantage and using as much as we can. We have distributed what we have been able to acquire to our residences, but it is a difficult, difficult situation out there. 

Archways:  Has the core mission of Catholic Charities been changed in any way by the coronavirus? Will the pandemic create the need for any new ministries within Catholic Charities?  

Monsignor Sullivan: Since September 11, 2001 – sadly – Catholic Charities has been in the business of being at the center of responses to community tragedies, community disasters. We were at the center of responding and helping those impacted by 9/11, and then the great recession of 2008 – we provided a massive amount of assistance to people trying to recover from that. After Superstorm Sandy, we were again at the center of coordinating the case management needs. People needed help for the next four or five years negotiating the assistance that was available to them. So what we’re doing now has been part of our mission for the past 20 years. 

We don’t do it every day because, thanks be to God, there’s not a community-wide disaster every day.  But in New York, every four to seven years out of the past 20, we’ve experienced a major disaster. When that happens, Catholic Charities resurrects what we have done in the past and adapts it to the new circumstances. The new circumstance this time is: We don’t have face to face meetings with the people who need help, we distance from them as much as possible and we do a lot of stuff remotely on the phone. But we’re providing the same type of assistance. 

Archways: What’s the situation on the ground right now for Catholic Charities and its agencies? What other changes are being made in delivery of services? 

Monsignor Sullivan: Some of the traditional services that we had been providing two months ago are suspended. So in other words, some of our classrooms, where we’re helping kids with early intervention for learning delays – those are closed. We’re still trying to keep in contact with families by reaching out to them and, to the extent possible, providing them with resources where they can work with their children even though there aren’t classes. We have a huge number of in-school and after-school programs that involve tutoring, some counseling, some college-prep programs – those can’t be done in the same way, because those schools are closed. However, our staff tries to stay in touch with the families. 

Many Catholic Charities workers have been reassigned to the enrichment centers, which are providing day care for children of essential workers. That’s important work that can’t be done remotely. So there’s been a certain amount of reassigning of people, a lot of working remotely. Even though we’re open for business, it’s certainly not business as usual.

Archways: What about immigration services and mental-health and addiction services? Have they also been temporarily changed to happen largely by phone? Or are they suspended? 

Monsignor Sullivan: Catholic Charities immigration services continue to be provided, but remotely. Our staff are taking calls and responding to requests for help through the New York State New Americans Hotline, ActionNYC and other helplines. Attorneys are now providing counsel via phone, only meeting clients in person when absolutely necessary – for example, to get forms signed. 

Day laborers served by Catholic Charities, in particular, are acutely feeling the impact of Covid-19, with so many job sites closed. While observing social distancing guidelines, our staff are out there providing bags of food, handing out personal protective equipment and answering questions.  Catholic Charities also continues to operate the Parish Counseling Network (PCN), which offers mental health counseling to parishioners in the archdiocese – though now only remotely. Given the anxiety that many are experiencing, this resource is more in demand than ever.  

Archways: How have services to the homeless changed? Have significant changes been made at Safe Haven shelters and other shelters operated by Catholic Charities-affiliated agencies? Are programs like the Education Outreach Program on hold until gatherings are safe?

Monsignor Sullivan: Our Holy Rosary Stabilization Bed Program provides temporary, safe housing and an opportunity for people who have been chronically homeless. Some of our residents have been living on streets and subways for two years, others for over 20 years. Most suffer from bipolar, schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorders and have a long history of substance abuse addiction. At the moment, Holy Rosary is fully operational insofar as the site is staffed and sanitized, meals are provided and social service workers coordinate care on behalf of the residents. The most significant change has been the impact of social distancing: support groups are not taking place, clients are eating meals sitting apart from one another and community care is being accessed via telephone. 

Archways:  How can the archdioceses’s Catholics help during this crisis? Where can they donate? And are there any places where they are needed as volunteers? 

Monsignor Sullivan: We are still taking volunteers. Some of our food pantries need volunteers, because we have to pack the bags of food for our clients. People can go to our Catholic Charities website and look at the volunteer opportunities there. They are not the same as they were before the crisis, but we are still accepting volunteers. Certain types of volunteering just can’t go on. But some can.  

As for donations, we do have an emergency fund and already people have made contributions to it. Individuals and some foundations have indicated they’re going to be providing support. And there is the availability – it’s a little bit all over the place at the moment – but there is the availability of some government funding, particularly for our support of individuals who have lost their jobs. 

Fortunately, as a society, we do tend to be generous in the response when there is an emergency, wanting to help our neighbors in need. But I believe that the extent of the need in this case is going to be larger than we have ever seen before. As in any emergency like this, it’s always the poor and vulnerable who bear the biggest brunt. Now, nobody – nobody – is exempt in this pandemic. But the stress on our poor neighbors, our vulnerable neighbors, and some of those concentrated in certain neighborhoods, is going to be even more acute than on others. 

Archways: What have your days been like during this crisis, compared to what they were like before? What’s it like for Catholic Charities staff and volunteers out in the field?  

Monsignor Sullivan: First, I want to say a word of incredible gratitude and appreciation – can’t say enough – for our health care workers. They are doing heroic work to treat people who have been made sick by coronavirus. But in addition to the thousands of sick people, there are so many other people who are also in need. And even many of the sick, when and if they recover, are going to have other needs. Catholic Charities workers are working to meet some of those non-medical needs.  

My days have been busier, our staff have been busier – because the ordinary stuff that we do needs to go on, and we have to figure out how to make adjustments to the way we do it. Making adjustments often requires a lot more energy than just going on as you usually have.  So that is real. 

And the other issue is: How do we meet the needs that weren’t there two months ago, the new needs that the pandemic has brought on? As one example, people who may not historically have been Catholic Charities clients may now find themselves in need of assistance to meet basic needs. In that sense, making sure people have emergency financial assistance takes on more importance during disasters like Covid-19.  We are also starting to hear about people who need assistance with unanticipated expenses such as funeral costs. That is something we are paying attention to, and thinking about how best to address. 

Archways: There’s no telling how long this crisis will last. Will the work of Catholic Charities be changed by the coronavirus experience in any significant way?

Monsignor Sullivan: Let me go back to 9/11 for a moment. The one thing that changed for everybody after 9/11 was your ability to get on an airplane, your ability to walk into a building. A heightened concern for security and safety became necessary. That changed the way that everybody does business. That was a change that everybody had to deal with. And at Catholic Charities, we had to deal with that change. 

What is going to change after this is: Everybody has to adjust to figuring out how much work can be done remotely, how much needs to be done in person. How do you deliver services in a way that doesn’t create a serious risk to everybody’s health? That’s going to be a significant adjustment that people are going to make. And it’s going to impact the way that Catholic Charities does our work, our services. Some of it may be for the good, some of it may not. But that’s clearly going to impact what we do. 

The other thing our experience teaches us from past disasters is: The recovery period is probably four or five years. People will say, “It’s over. Why don’t we just go back to normal?” Well, we don’t go back to normal – in this one particularly – because of the economic impact, the loss of jobs. It’s going to take four or five years for us to get back to any semblance of what “normal” means. 

Archways: Anything else you would like to add?

Monsignor Sullivan: It is in times of crisis like this that all of the ministries of the Church come to the fore. We see the importance of our parishes – which still exist, even though there are no services. Many churches are still open, people are coming in to pray. Some parishes are doing remote services. Our schools – while the physical buildings are closed – are still doing remote learning. So Catholic Charities is very, very proud to be part of that body of the Church, whose presence in New York is absolutely at the center of our communities, our neighborhoods. We all do different things, but together there is that incredibly important, essential, and life-giving work of the Church, which is called to be even more in the forefront in times of crisis and times of challenge like this Covid-19 pandemic.