Social Services continue ministry in age of social distancing Catholic Charities adapts services to COVID-19 guidelines

by Patrick J. Buechi
Fri, May 8th 2020 01:45 pm

 The Coronavirus has caused an unprecedented reaction through the world. Entire countries are experiencing lockdowns with people told to stay at home.  Popular tourist attractions are shut down. Photographs of empty streets and deserted hot spots fill the internet.

Essential workers, such as pharmacists, bankers and cooks still go into the office, but non-essential workers either work from home or don't work at all.  The Federal Reserve predicts 32 percent unemployment by the time this pandemic is over. People still in the field now practice social distancing to stop the spread of the Covid-19 virus.  Restaurants serve takeout only meals. Supermarkets have installed "sneeze guards" to separate customer from employee. 

Catholic Charities of Western New York, which has a long history of person-to-person service, has made some notable changes to its process of carrying out its mission.   

 "Out of roughly 400 employees, we have 70 percent of the people working outside the office, principally from home," explained Deacon Steve Schumer, president and CEO of Catholic Charities of Western New York. "The largest group that we're working to get away from the office right now is the people who work in counseling because those are the people who are typically meeting face-to-face with folks."

On March 16, when Gov. Andrew Cuomo initiated social distancing - measures such as avoiding crowds and standing at least six feet away from others - Catholic Charities began conducting counseling session over the phone rather than face to face. Counselors would sit in the office while taking notes on computers. The Office of Mental Health has specific guidelines on what it calls telepractice - using telephones and internet to conduct counseling sessions. Telepractice can hinder non-verbal communications, simultaneous communications, and privacy issues. Those guidelines have been relaxed to allow counseling sessions to be conducted during this time. Catholic Charities employees are now distancing from each other by receiving laptops so they can work from home.

"There are still some counseling sessions that are going on face to face, depending on what the need is, because it's important for the counselor to be in the same room with the client. We just try to find a room big enough. 'You sit on that side of the room and I'll sit on this side of the room.' That sort of thing," Deacon Schumer explained.

While equipping 60 counselors with laptops has been a challenge, it has been easier to change the process in the food pantries.

Under normal circumstances, a client comes in and sits at a desk with one of the staff to determine the needs through a general assessment of the client's life situation. Then together they go through the aisles, essentially shopping for needed food items. Catholic Charities now uses a slightly different method. Instead of hand-picking their food, the client receives pre-packed bags of food handed to them them through a door, sort of like curbside pickup.

"We're still serving folks, but there is no longer the ability to come inside the building and shop for yourself. We prepare a bag of basics and say, 'Here's what you got,'" said Deacon Schumer.

Catholic Charities food pantries have seen an increase in both customers and donations. FeedMore WNY has designated eight of Catholic Charities' nine pantries as emergency hubs. This means people can travel away from their local pantries to pick up needed food and personal care items elsewhere. 

"We're seeing folks come to the pantries that we haven't seen before," said Deacon Schumer. "We've been able to increase our service to the community in these special circumstances." 

"People who have been living paycheck to paycheck, those people are now saying, 'I don't have a job. I got laid off. I'm not making it week to week,' explained Eileen Nowak, director of Parish Outreach and Advocacy. "Also, people in the past who could have come to a food pantry, but didn't. They figured out a way to sort of make it. Now they're saying, 'I'm not making it.'" 

Nowak estimates that business has increased by 25 percent in the first two weeks after Cuomo's social distancing directive, with 1,200 to 1,300 families being served in that time. 

The food comes from Wegman's, Sam's Club, Trader Joe's, the Food Bank of Western New York, and FoodLink of Rochester. 

The Catholic Charities-run Lots of Clothes Thrift Store has been closed during the pandemic, but the Ladies of Charity still offers its Fresh Start Program for people who have experienced resettlement due to fire or domestic violence. Clients with referrals can come in and, similar to food pantries, staff will hand the needed items to the client. It doesn't have that thrill that shopping does, but reduces the number of hands and germs that handle the clothes. One major aspect of Catholic Charities work is helping people who come in off the street looking for help paying for medicine, utilities and personal care items. Central Intake may see 300 people during a typical two-week span come in to the office at 525 Washington, St., in downtown Buffalo, or any of the other nine emergency assistance center across Western New York.

These offices have also implemented social distancing by having clients enter an enclosed vestibule and use an available telephone to call the staff just on the other side of the door for a thorough assessment. Documents are exchanged through a mail slot, while food and personal care items can be given through a side door. While it may seem impersonal, it allows the Catholic Charities staff to maintain the level of care and aid they have been providing for 97 years.   

"We want to continue to meet the needs of the community, while keeping everybody safe," said Joyelle Tedeschi, director of Family and Community Services Department. "Our goal is not to turn anyone away."

Walk-ins are still welcome at all Emergency Service locations.

"I'm really proud of the people here who have been creative and just so dedicated," said Schumer. 

"They view the work that they do as a mission to care for the folks that we normally see."

Anyone who needs help can call Central Intake at 716-856-4494.