Catholic Charities: A Caring Federation Where Needs Are Met

First of a Monthly Series

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A New York City mayor once declared some years ago, “Without Catholic Charities, I couldn’t run this city.”

It’s a remark that could just as easily be attributed to a suburban county executive or director of social services anywhere in the 10 counties of the archdiocese.

Why?

Because “Catholic Charities has always been there to respond to the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable of New Yorkers, no matter what those needs have been,” said Msgr. Kevin Sullivan, executive director of Catholic Charities in the archdiocese.

From the time that religious orders and Catholic individuals began their organized charitable activities in early 19th century New York, Catholic Charities has evolved and adapted to the changing needs of the people that it serves and has remained steadfast in its commitment to them.

“Over the years, because of our consistency, faithfulness and focus on the dignity of each person, we’ve been able to meet those needs as new crises came about because we were already there,” Msgr. Sullivan said.

In recent years, Catholic Charities has served an average of 350,000 people annually through its more than 90 affiliated agencies at 300 sites, with combined budgets of $715 million.

The programs serve children and youths through foster care placements, adoption services, after-school programs, summer camps, day care and Head Start programs and Catholic Youth Organization sports activities.

Its food and shelter programs serve some 6.16 million meals per year in parish and community food programs for needy families and individuals; nearly 4,700 families were helped last year in homeless prevention programs and another 6,524 families are living in affordable housing; more than 2,500 individuals were housed in transitional apartments and 8,430 received emergency overnight shelter.

Counseling, job training and placement, support for women during unplanned pregnancies, emergency financial assistance and a variety of other social services help more than 68,000 children, adults and families in crisis situations.

An array of programs help the physically and emotionally challenged, including early intervention preschools and special education classes, housing for the mentally ill, treatment for substance abuse and training for the visually impaired.

Programs to assist and welcome immigrants and refugees serve more than 4,800 people directly, and another 40,000 who get their questions answered on a Catholic Charities immigration hotline that provides information in 18 languages.

Even with its huge numbers, however, the Catholic Charities federation avoids becoming bogged down in bureaucracy precisely because it is a federation, with the member agencies and programs each having their own areas of expertise. Some programs are run directly by Catholic Charities, some are run under Catholic Charities sponsorship and others are nonprofit Catholic agencies that work in cooperation with Catholic Charities.

“Each has its own charism, its own leadership, its own distinctive set of services that they provide in communities from Staten Island to Rhinebeck and Kingston,” Msgr. Sullivan said.

“As a federation, the strength is that they can look at what’s needed in their communities, their neighborhoods in the areas where they have particular expertise,” he said. “It’s not a huge monolith, but we’re all united and inspired by our Catholic values.”

In approaching problems with young children, for instance, one agency might specialize in working with children with developmental delays while another might be expert in helping families cope with challenges of a child with severe emotional problems.

The breadth and scope of services under the Catholic Charities umbrella also means that clients with multiple needs don’t have to go from place to place to get help.

“When someone approaches us, we look at them in a holistic fashion,” said Beatriz Diaz Taveras, executive director of Catholic Charities Community Services.

“If an individual comes to Catholic Charities with an immigration query, for example, that person could be referred to an appropriate agency within Catholic Charities—perhaps even in the same building.

“Referrals happen between our departments routinely,” she said. “People don’t necessarily have to be referred to an outside agency.”

She added that Catholic Charities also has a good partnership with FidelisCare, the Catholic Medicaid managed care plan, and is able to refer clients who do not have health insurance.

“We look at families as a whole,” Ms. Diaz Taveras said.

The federation model allows Catholic Charities agencies and programs to respond quickly and change course smoothly to address new crises as they emerge.

When the AIDS crisis erupted in the 1980s, for instance, “some mothers felt so overwhelmed that they just left their newborn infants with AIDS in hospitals,” as so-called boarder babies, Msgr. Sullivan said.

“So with the help of Msgr. Leonard and Sister Una, we were able to take a former convent at Incarnation Church and convert it into a safe, loving home for about 20 infants with HIV-AIDS,” he said, referring to the Incarnation Children’s Center in Washington Heights. Msgr. Thomas Leonard was Incarnation’s pastor and Sister Una McCormack, O.P., was director of child care services for the archdiocese.

“Every year, there’s a change to the network of services and agencies and programs,” Msgr. Sullivan said. “Most times, it’s an expansion of a new service, but there’s also an adjustment of services and a reconfiguration of services.

“Sometimes, there’s no longer the same need in the same place and we have to phase things out,” he said.

One such phase-out going on now, he said, is at the Holy Name Centre for Homeless Men on Bleecker Street near the Bowery.

“That goes back to the early part of the 20th century,” Msgr. Sullivan said about the center, which was established in 1906. “But because of the gentrification of the Bowery area, there’s no longer a significant population of homeless men there.”

One of the things Catholic Charities has been expanding is its emergency food program. In line with that, he said, Catholic Charities instituted, along with former Mets right fielder Rusty Staub, a mobile emergency food pantry that’s been operating for seven or eight years.

“It goes to different communities, where it’s needed,” Msgr. Sullivan said. “Right now, it goes to Highbridge in the Bronx and to Staten Island. Maybe next year, we might go to different sites because there will be different needs that can be met with that van.”

Mary Ellen Ros, who’s based in Poughkeepsie as director of Catholic Charities Hudson Valley Regional Services, said her staff has lately been seeing problems stemming from the economy, which “has really affected people’s ability to meet basic needs” such as meeting their rent and mortgage payments and putting food on the table.

“We try to help by working with them on an individual basis,” she said. “Our case managers are the core of that work. It’s very, very basic, sitting down with someone and understanding the root of the problem—which in many cases is unemployment or underemployment.”

Ms. Ros said services to immigrants have also become an important part of Catholic Charities’ operation in the Hudson Valley, where there are not a lot of other options. “There’s a growing number of immigrants,” she said. “Just like other residents of New York City, immigrants have moved north.”

She said, “There’s a real need to have language-appropriate services, and also to have the ability to understand and develop relationships with that population and to advocate for them.”

The roots of Catholic Charities go back to the Catholic Benevolent League, organized by a group of Catholic laymen to care for children before and after the Civil War, primarily in lower Manhattan. At the same time, the Sisters of Charity and the freed Haitian slave Pierre Toussaint, whose cause for canonization is open, joined forces to support an orphanage that was the predecessor of the New York Foundling Hospital.

By the early part of the 20th century, with communities of women religious taking the lead, there were 200 Catholic-run service agencies in the archdiocese providing foster care to children and serving the poor in many ways.

Catholic Charities today owes “so much of its spirit and soul” to those religious communities, who established, fostered and supported so many of these agencies, Msgr. Sullivan said. “The Sisters of Charity, the Dominican Sisters, the Good Shepherd Sisters and the Franciscan Sisters are just a few of the many that have contributed to the heart and soul of our affiliated Catholic Charities agencies,” he said.

As the agencies were expanding in the early 1900s, however, public debate with negative religious overtones began to challenge the right of Catholic agencies to serve the poor.

In response, Cardinal Patrick Hayes, the archbishop of New York, organized the agencies into the federation that operates today. The state legislature made it official nearly a century ago, in 1917, with a special act incorporating The Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New York.

Looking ahead, Catholic Charities is building toward its 100th anniversary in 2017.

“The needs are different than they were 100 years ago, they’re different than they were 10 years ago,” Msgr. Sullivan said. “So for the next five years we’ll be planning a strategy to make sure we’re positioned to serve the needs of the next 100 years.

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