Poverty rises: Can Catholic Charities keep up?

| September 23, 2010 | 2 Comments

Mark Harris and his daughter, Danquita, play a game in their room at Catholic Charities Family Service Center in Maple­wood. Photo by Dave Hrbacek / The Catholic Spirit

Every day, Danquita Harris, 11, en­­courages her dad, Mark Harris, to pray: Pray for a job and a place of their own to live.

Mark is struggling to find work that fits into Danquita’s school sched­ule, which runs from about 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Ramsey County requires children to be with their parents at all times while living at the family shelter at Catholic Charities’ Family Service Center in Maple­wood, where the two have been living since Sept. 9.

“I have three people that want to hire me, but I can’t work because of my daughter’s school schedule,” he said. “I don’t want to depend on the public system to take care of me and my child. I want to get out on my own and work.”

Harris previously worked in Chi­ca­go at a McDonald’s restaurant as a supervisor for a security company. He and his daughter moved to the Twin Cities Aug. 31 to get away from frequent gunfire.

Danquita said, “I feel this would be a good place for my dad to raise me, instead of every time he looks on the news, there is a little kid getting shot.”

The Harrises are among the many people being served by Catholic Charities of the Arch­diocese of St. Paul and Min­nea­polis. They, like the others, face added hurdles due to the current economic crisis.

Poverty rate climbing

A Sept. 17 report from the U.S. Census Bureau noted that the national poverty rate climbed to 14.7 percent, the highest since 1994. It said 43.6 million Americans — one in seven — were living in poverty in 2009. The number of people without health insurance, 50.7 million, is at an all-time high.

“The last two fiscal years have proven difficult,” said Becky Lentz, Catholic Charities’ communications director. “We, like many nonprofits, saw a decrease (about 10 percent in 2009) in donations while seeing a huge increase in demand.”

After visits to the agency’s food shelves doubled between June 30, 2008, and July 1, 2009, the number increased 27 percent in the same period between 2009 and 2010. But,  while the amount of increase was less this past year, it was not because the need lessened, Lentz noted.

“We are at capacity. We literally cannot fit any more appointments into the hours that the food shelves are open,” she said. In addition, there has been a 70 percent jump in the number of clients in the counseling program who don’t have insurance, and emergency shelters are “beyond filled.”

Most nights, the Dorothy Day Cen­ter in St. Paul has up to 210 people sleeping on mats on the floor, Lentz reported. As de­mand for services is increasing, Cath­olic Chari­ties has been forced to decrease staff and freeze wages.

“Be­cause of the sacrifices of staff and the support of donors, businesses and foundations, we’ve been able to maintain our level of service to people in need,” she said. “This cannot go on indefinitely.”

Cutting programs that serve the most vulnerable hurts families and children, Lentz said.

“Studies show that the less time people spend homeless, the more likely they are to be successful at maintaining housing,” she said.

Preventing homelessness

A Sept. 23 report on the Family Homeless Prevention and Rapid Re­Hou­sing Program in Ramsey Coun­ty showed the benefits of helping people before they become homeless. Catholic Charities developed the program in 2009, in collaboration with the YMCA of St. Paul, with federal stimulus funding.

In the first eight months, the program helped 173 families — 571 individuals — at “imminent risk” of being homeless to avoid homelessness. It cost $103,627 to help those 173 families, the report noted. It would have cost $731,790 to provide emergency shelter for the same families for 30 days.

“Helping a family avoid homelessness in the first place not only saves society money in the long run but also provides the stability to a family that they need,” Lentz said.

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