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Catholic agencies face tight funds

Dave Ross calls them the "new poor." They are skilled people who had always made a good living until a spreading recession eliminated not only their jobs but also their chances for re-employment at the same income.

"People who would not have thought of themselves as poor a year or two ago are finding out that they are," said Ross, a therapist who is clinical director of the Archdiocese of San Francisco's Catholic Charities CYO counseling program in San Mateo.

"We've seen people here over the last year who have had well-paying jobs in either the trades or sales who are now doing low-paying jobs - taxi drivers, security guards," he said. "People who were making a lot of money are now finding themselves security guards for empty buildings."

The unemployed and underemployed who come to Ross' office and pay what little they can for a listening ear give a glimpse of the human impact of the recession and the role of Catholic social service providers in easing the suffering.

In many case the agencies are hard-hit themselves, stretching limited funds to handle a growing caseload. With these forces tugging in opposite directions, some charities are in new and uncomfortable territory.

"I've seen our service needs increase before, but I've never seen resources go down at the same," said Terri Brown, CCCYO's director of programs and services.

Archdiocese-wide, CCCYO is taking a hard look at next year's budget as fundraising dips double digits below the year-ago level.

In San Mateo, Ross said his counseling office is scheduling 10 percent more appointments than before the recession but is taking in less money because clients are short on cash.

In Marin County, the St. Vincent de Paul Society is experiencing a dramatic rise in demand, with 25 percent more people at its daily dining room service and as much as 35 percent increase in demand for home visits and housing assistance.

In San Francisco, SVDP reports a 10 percent revenue drop for its feeding, housing and substance abuse programs. Executive Director Chris Cody is bracing for bigger cuts later this year.

"We are pressing very hard to increase donations as well as the visibility of our programs," Cody said. "We believe the community, especially the Catholic community in San Francisco, will respond to our clients' desperate condition if it is clearly communicated."

As striking as the number of people seeking help is the degree of distress many are experiencing across economic levels, from the day laborer who cannot support his family because work has dried up to the middle-class parish couple who lost their income and their house and confront the possibility of having to leave their community to find work.

Many people who could have found stability in previous economic downturns are facing homelessness, said Lorraine Moriarty, executive director of the St. Vincent de Paul Society in San Mateo County. She said one client had to leave a rental home after the landlord lost it to foreclosure, only to be displaced again after the second landlord also lost his home.

By now it is a cliché among economists to say this recession is different. But to Ross, the difference is all too real.

In previous recessions - the early ‘80s and early ‘90s - if people were thrown out of work because their industry was hammered they would go figuratively across the street to an industry that was still hiring, Ross said. Not so with the current downturn, which seems to have spread across nearly every industry, he said.

"There is no ‘down the street' to get a job," Ross said.

Ross is seeing slightly more men than women clients in this recession. Typical is the technology worker, a man in his 30s, who sent out 50 resumes after losing his job and got only one call back.

"He's trying all kinds of things," Ross said. "He applied for a taxi driver position. He didn't get that, because everyone else is applying for taxi driver positions. Trader Joe's - these are $8-9-an-hour jobs. Didn't even get a call back.

"What happens is a guy like this will get discouraged quickly," Ross said. "He can't use his skills, not to mention the economic pressure. Most of us can't support a family on $8 an hour. I'm concerned about the emotional effects even if he gets a job tomorrow."

Ross said he is seeing a number of clients who have lost their jobs at hotels at San Francisco International Airport. "All the hotels are just really struggling," he said. "We see the service workers, the maids."

What can Catholics do to support friends and family members in financial distress?

"I would say be sensitive, be compassionate," Ross said. "I would say be available to your friends and family - not that they have to run down here and volunteer to help us out but if they have a friend or family member who needs help, to respond to that."

People have always leaned on their friends in hard times. But, as the cliché goes, this time is different.

"Now the friends are in the same position," Ross said. "That really concerns me."

By Rick DelVecchio and Michael Vick
From February 20, 2009 issue of Catholic San Francisco