Staff member Dottie Perreault organizes some of the food that has been donated to the Diocese of Providence’s Emmanuel House. Courtesy of Rhode Island Catholic

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Every week, hundreds of hungry, struggling Rhode Islanders flock to a food pantry in the basement of St. Teresa of Ávila, a boarded-up church located in a gritty, working-class Providence neighborhood. 

In recent weeks, people have also broken into the church basement to steal food. 

“It’s a sign of the times. Things are getting really tough. Things are getting really bad,” said Lorraine Burns, the director of the St. Teresa Food Pantry, a ministry of Blessed Sacrament Church in Providence. 

Burns told Our Sunday Visitor that her ministry fed more than 5,800 people in August. With a sluggish local economy and a statewide unemployment rate above 10 percent, Burns expects the situation to worsen as the winter months approach. 

“I never worry, though. I put it in God’s hands, and somehow he provides for us. ... We have wonderful donors,” Burns said. 

Rhode Island’s economic struggles — its statewide poverty rate hovers around 13 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau — is one local example of how poverty is gripping more people, including intact families, across the country. 

The U.S. Census Bureau announced in a mid-September report that the number of Americans living in poverty climbed to 46.2 million people in 2010. That figures represents 15.1 percent of the population, which is the highest level the country has seen since 1993. In everyday terms, that works out to one in six people living below the poverty line of just $22,113 a year for a family of four. 

That troubling picture prompted New York Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, to urge the country’s Catholic bishops and priests to discuss poverty in their homilies. The archbishop also underscored the need for educational and advocacy efforts on behalf of the poor and homeless. 

“Widespread unemployment, underemployment and pervasive poverty are diminishing human lives, undermining human dignity and hurting children and families,” Archbishop Dolan wrote at the urging of the USCCB administrative committee, which oversees the conference’s work between plenary sessions. 

Families in great need

Jim Jahnz, emergency services coordinator for the Diocese of Providence, told OSV that diocesan relief agencies are seeing substantial increases in people seeking assistance with heating oil, food, rental assistance and emergency shelter. 

“It’s not unusual for us to see hundreds of calls a day across the diocese from people seeking help. And this [increase] is happening as we see more and more a substantially higher percentage of our requests coming from families, who are either unemployed and receiving unemployment assistance or who have just run out of unemployment insurance all together,” Jahnz said. 

With a statewide unemployment rate of 10.6 percent — the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics ranks Rhode Island as the state with the sixth-highest rate in the nation — more families are falling months behind in rent and utility bills. 

“I received a call today from a family of four kids, their mom and the grandmother, who were looking for shelter. Obviously, that has a ripple effect. How are these kids going to do well in school when they don’t have a place to live? How is the family going to stay well, physically, emotionally and spiritually?” Jahnz said. 

“Without the assistance that Catholic Charities in Providence provides, these people would be out on the streets. They would be cold and certainly very hungry. These families and individuals are feeling pressure from all over. It’s not just one particular need. It’s not just rent, but it’s also utilities and everything else.” 

Agencies feeling the pinch

Individuals and families are not only feeling the squeeze. The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Emergency Food and Shelter Program — which helps dozens of state agencies provide food, rent and utility assistance to people faced with nondisaster-related emergencies—slashed about 35 percent of its funding to Rhode Island this fiscal year. 

“With that kind of cut in assistance, you see more and more people needing to rely upon soup kitchens and food lockers, but there are less and less resources available,” Jahnz said. 

“Really, the only way to describe the outlook is bleak. Obviously, our plan is going to be to provide as much and as complete assistance as we can.” 

Among the programs the Diocese of Providence has at its disposal include Keep The Heat On, a heating oil assistance program that has served more than 3,600 households since its 2005 launch. 

“We’re seeing 20 to 30 calls a day for heating assistance,” Jahnz said. “The electric shutoffs are at an all-time high. Over the past two years, when the recession was in full swing, we were experiencing large increases in assistance requests. Now, we’re seeing increases upon increases.” 

Last December, the diocese opened Emmanuel House, an overflow homeless shelter located in a former day care center. Officials originally planned for the facility to be a winter shelter, but the local demand forced the diocese to keep Emmanuel House open through the beginning of June. 

Jahnz said the diocese expects to reopen Emmanuel House in mid-October, per the requests of several state officials. 

“People who have been straddling the line over the last couple of years have been dragged down into severe poverty,” Jahnz said. “Certainly, we’re seeing anecdotal evidence of multiple families living in single-dwelling apartments. We’re seeing more and more homeless throughout the state.” 

Burns said Rhode Island’s need for emergency food and relief programs is “bigger than anyone can see.” 

“A woman came in to the pantry recently and she was struggling to pay about $3.30 worth of medicine. She couldn’t even rub that amount together,” Burns said. 

Calls for social justice

Providence Bishop Thomas J. Tobin wrote on social justice in his Aug. 18 column for the Rhode Island Catholic, the diocesan weekly newspaper. 

Bishop Tobin wrote: “Most people would agree, I think, that one of the primary responsibilities of the government — federal, state and local — is to provide a safety net for the poor. While churches and non-profits, community groups and even individual families can and should do their part to assist their neighbors in need, it’s only the government that has the financial resources and political infrastructure necessary to respond in a systematic way to the enormous social needs of our time — providing food for the hungry, suitable housing for the homeless, basic health care for the sick, sound education for children and opportunities for productive employment.” 

Archbishop Dolan’s letter also focused on the duty of Catholics to build a “more just society and economy,” called on all sectors of society to accept their responsibility to create jobs, adding that “the best way out of poverty is to work at a living wage.” 

Working on the “front lines” in the fight against poverty, Burns said she believes is carrying out an important task. 

“As sad as the picture is, at the same time, we’re supplying these people with food,” she said. “It’s what we need to do.” 

Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.