By Valerie Schmalz
During the biggest economic downturn since the Great Depression, St. Vincent de Paul Society councils throughout the country have responded to a significant uptick in calls for help -- including those from the middle class.
Requests for assistance are up 40 percent in Seattle and have doubled in Long Island, N.Y., where business people wearing suits are showing up at the St. Vincent de Paul Society food pantries.
In Dallas, a rise in home foreclosures is hitting hard and factory layoffs are hurting folks in Milwaukee. And in Boise, Idaho, a lack of emergency lodging is forcing some homeless to seek help across the border in Washington state or to sleep under bridges.
"People are calling who have never called for any kind of help before," said Sylvia Holler, director of fund development and marketing for the St. Vincent de Paul Society Diocesan Council in Dallas. The society operates an information referral line and is hearing from "people who are needing food, people who have lost their homes, who are needing help paying for medicine. We are seeing clients who are middle class."
"The economy is obviously having an effect all over the country," said Mike Syslo, associate executive director of the Society of St. Vincent De Paul National Council of the United States in St. Louis. "We are receiving significantly more requests for assistance."
Since the recession began in December 2007, the federal government reports 6.7 million jobs have been lost.
"The squeeze is on the giving side because the increase in requests is much higher than the increase in donations," said Gerald Felsecker, executive director of the St. Vincent de Paul Archdiocesan Council of Milwaukee.
"We are struggling, and we do have to turn people away," said Felsecker, estimating the Milwaukee group is declining about 10 percent of requests for food, clothing or rent assistance.
In the St. Vincent de Paul District Council of Lewis and Clark in Boise, people are asking for assistance in paying rent and utilities, and they need clothing, household items, and emergency funds for gas, prescriptions and bus tickets to elsewhere. Two thrift shops have adequate material donations, but the monetary demands far exceed the profit from sales.
"As far as monetary donations, we are really struggling, and the churches are struggling to provide help, too," said Shannon Koskenmaki, executive director of the District Council of Lewis and Clark.
"We don't have unlimited funds, and our conferences are being inundated with requests for help. For the first time that I remember, we have had to say, 'Sorry, we can't help you,'" said Jim Dilts, executive director of the Society's Diocesan Council of Rockville Center in Long Island since 1992.
Some of the financial industry executives who in the past shared their bonuses are asking for assistance, Dilts said. And there is a trickle-down effect: "Guys who used to pay someone to cut their grass are cutting their own grass -- so the guys who cut grass are out of work."
"We do what we can. We will survive this," said Dilts, who said a program for homeless men was shut down because it relied on government funding that was cut but seven others remain open.
One in four parishes nationally support a St. Vincent de Paul Society, and internationally the society is established in 142 countries. Founded in 1833 by a 20-year-old French student at the Sorbonne, Frederic Ozanam, who wanted to help the poor within the context of Catholic spirituality, the St. Vincent de Paul Society is named after St. Vincent because of his devotion to the poor, said Richard Bray of the Seattle archdiocesan council. Pope John Paul II beatified Ozanam in 1997.
Nationally and internationally, the structure of the core charitable works of the St. Vincent de Paul Society is parish-based with some special works that are broader, such as homeless and domestic violence shelters and alcohol rehabilitation centers, Syslo said.
"It's person-to-person works of charity. That's what we focus on," said Syslo. "We focus on spiritual growth, fellowship and service."
Individual parish groups conduct home visits to help those in need, pay utility bills and help with back rent. Each home visit is preceded and followed by prayer and, if the person or family in need requests it, prayer during the visit, Bray said.
The home visit "enables the Vincentian to encounter Christ in the face of the poor," Bray said. The home visit also helps the Vincentian assess a person's need and help with networking for other help, such as assistance in job hunts, Bray said.
"The majority of the funding that we get throughout the U.S. comes from the parish collections that are done on the behalf of the society," said Syslo. Thrift stores, individual and some corporate donations, and private foundation grants pay the most of the remainder of the society's work. Special works often are partly funded by government grants, said Jenifer Shelnutt, chief development officer for the society council in the San Francisco archdiocese. The society receives no funding from the annual bishops' appeals, Syslo said.
Often members of the St. Vincent de Paul Society have devoted decades to its work, Bray noted.
In Seattle, a 93-year-old man has volunteered for 70 years, while a couple, 25, last year spent part of their wedding day in the inaugural Friends of the Poor Walk that the national society started last year, he said. Melissa and Andrew Morrison brought 30 friends. "She wore a veil for the walk; he wore a tux T-shirt," Bray said. "It was the most touching gift of generosity."
"We continue to see people who want to answer the Gospel call," said Bray, a father of five children. "The resources are there. The disciples talked about how Jesus fed the 5,000. The disciples had to come up with the loaves and fishes. They had to ask everybody to get to that point. We need to do that today. God will ultimately provide."
"Even in recessionary times, there are things people can do," Bray said. "We tell people to give us a couple of dollars, a bag of clothes. We are a spiritual organization; give us your prayer."
While some councils have had to turn down requests or close programs, others have been able to hold steady during the economic downturn. The need for services has quadrupled for the City of Dubuque Council in Iowa, society president Gary Anglin told OSV, but donations have increased, and the council is doing better than it had over a year ago.
Money is raised in two thrift shops that compete with other local charity stores for material donations. Help comes from churches that have monthly envelopes earmarked for St. Vincent de Paul ministries, and one church has a "loose change drive" on fifth Sundays. Local churches, including Protestant, help out in food drives, too.
"We have a fill-the-truck drive where we take a truck to one of our churches and try to fill it on a given weekend with bedding, dressers, lamps, tables, anything that people can donate," Anglin said."We are doing OK and keeping our head afloat."
-- Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller
For more information on the Society of St. Vincent de Paul: www.svdpusa.org.
Valerie Schmalz is an OSV contributing editor. Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller contributed to this report.
Please note: Comments left online may be considered for publication in the Letters to the Editor section of OSV Newsweekly.
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