As the Coronavirus Hits, Catholic Charities Readies for the Surge


One of the unwritten rules I have always tried to observe as a Catholic journalist is shying away from asking priests for interviews on Sundays, for obvious reasons. We are living in different times right now, and one proof was that I received a request from a well-known priest of the archdiocese to contact him on what wound up to be last Sunday afternoon.

The request came from Msgr. Kevin Sullivan, executive director of archdiocesan Catholic Charities, who I always respond to quickly, especially right now in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak in New York City and state. Over the weekend, we had sent one of our photographers, Maria R. Bastone, out to a “grab-and-go” food pantry distribution Msgr. Sullivan attended at Abraham House in the Bronx.

Msgr. Sullivan told me over the phone that the food distribution at Abraham House, where Althea Brooks is executive director, is an early call every Saturday, from 6:30 to 7:30 a.m. About 120 people usually turn out, but last Saturday’s number was only about 35. The food was set up in bins outside Abraham House, so staff and volunteers could maintain proper “social distancing” with clients and each other.

While the numbers helped were lower than normal, Msgr. Sullivan was not surprised. “People are both afraid and are heeding that they should be staying inside unless they have a reason to be out,” he said.

That may not be the case two weeks from now, when the practical effects of the spike in unemployment begin to take hold. “It’s a good bet” that Catholic Charities will face a “surge” of requests for assistance at that point, he said.

Msgr. Sullivan and his team at Catholic Charities, who provide a mountain of services to New Yorkers in need, are getting their bearings in what he cleverly termed the “knuckleball environment” we all find ourselves in these days. Knuckleballs, for the uninitiated, are hard to control and follow a strange and confusing path that baffles batters and catchers. That’s a pretty good analogy to the disease that has turned our lives upside down, in some cases with devastating effects.

The early response to the coronavirus is vastly different than Catholic Charities’ approach after 9/11 or Superstorm Sandy. “We’re open for business,” Msgr. Sullivan said. “We’re still providing services, but in a vastly modified way.”

A primary goal is to keep staff, volunteers and the people they serve safe in this uncertain environment, Msgr. Sullivan said. One way the professionals who staff the agency’s helplines and hotlines do that is by handling calls and emails remotely, without traveling to a central office.

The food distribution at Abraham House is similar to one at Catholic Charities’ food pantries, many of which remain open. Instead of selecting food from shelves, clients now pick up prepared bags while proper social distancing is maintained.

Msgr. Sullivan shared a host of shifts and changes that have been undertaken at Charities’ food programs to respond effectively at this time. A lack of volunteers at Encore Senior Services at St. Malachy’s parish in Manhattan, for example, has made getting around to apartments more difficult. As a result, more frozen meals are being distributed, so the visits don’t have to be as frequent.

At one point, Msgr. Sullivan catalogued the services that Catholic Charities provides—Mother and Child, Head Start and day care programs; in-school and after-school programs; safe haven shelters; mental health counseling; job placement programs; permanent affordable housing; eviction prevention services; and legal immigration services. Those programs are just some of the ways Catholic Charities helps all New Yorkers.

“Every one of those services requires a different type of adjustment because of the nature of how you are delivering the services,” Msgr. Sullivan said. That’s no small feat.

When I asked about the subjects his employees were raising during conference calls, Msgr. Sullivan replied that their primary concern was how they were going to continue serving people, especially those who desperately need Catholic Charities’ services. “And their next concern was for their own safety, so they don’t endanger themselves and their families,” he said.

Msgr. Sullivan said his best advice is to follow to the letter what the experts say. “We’re not smarter than the CDC or the Departments of Health,” he said smartly.

Due to the evolving nature of the coronavirus threat, planning is done with “a very short horizon” subject to the shifts of the virus, he said.

As Msgr. Sullivan looked out his window at Our Saviour parish on Park Avenue in Manhattan Sunday morning, he saw the same thing the rest of us have witnessed for the past week—empty streets. “To the naked eye, it looks like people are heeding the orders that we engage in social distancing.”

Demand for Catholic Charities’ services is lagging the appearance of the coronavirus in New York.

“As the virus hopefully soon decreases, then we’ll see the social service needs and the financial assistance needs escalate,” Msgr. Sullivan said. “That’s a little bit of my experience from some of the previous community-wide disasters. I hope I’m wrong, but that’s what my experience, my judgment and my gut tells me.”

Catholic Charities will help people with financial assistance so they can find ways to stay in their houses and put food on their tables, and provide professional expertise “to walk them through this,” Msgr. Sullivan said.

“The financial assistance we’ll need to provide these services will be very significant going forward.”