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Pantries, parishes respond to pandemic with emergency aid

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When families visit the food pantry at Holy Family Church in Dale City, they come away with “a shopping cart full of food, including high-value kinds of things like meat, milk and produce,” as well as canned goods, worth about $153 per visit, said George “Digger” Smith, a volunteer who coordinates operations at the pantry.

The number of clients has nearly doubled during the coronavirus pandemic, especially after the pantry was featured recently on Spanish-language TV, Smith said. Serving clients in Woodbridge, Dale City and Lake Ridge, the pantry supplied food for 196 families of four or five members each, for a total of 979 people in June, up from 106 families (486 people) in March. 

The pantry became part of Prince William County’s Emergency Food Distribution Network in late April, and now receives weekly deliveries from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) as well as ongoing support from the St. Lucy Food Project, run by diocesan Catholic Charities. “Both have been willing to be responsive on short notice” to meet emergency needs, Smith said.

Holy Family is one of many pantries assisted by Catholic Charities, the social services arm of the Arlington diocese. The agency said it has provided more than $1 million in food and aid for emergency rental and utility assistance to an estimated 7,000 people over the past four months since COVID-19 cases started showing up in Northern Virginia.

cc graphics all 3 "One of my highest priorities throughout this pandemic has been to ensure that we only increase our outreach and support of the poor,” said Bishop Michael F. Burbidge. “With the generous and steadfast support of donors as well as volunteers and staff, we have been able to help thousands of people throughout the diocese in different ways. I am so proud of the work Catholic Charities continues to do in living out our Gospel mandate.”

Since March, Catholic Charities has distributed 492,186 pounds of food worth $797,341 to 6,000 people, a 154 percent increase from the same period in 2019. Its St. Lucy Food Project supplies food to families served by three Catholic Charities pantries: Loaves and Fishes in Front Royal, Christ House in Alexandria and the Leesburg regional office, as well as more than 60 parish, interfaith and community pantries across the diocese.

Aid prevents evictions

Catholic Charities also has responded with emergency assistance to prevent families and individuals from being evicted and becoming homeless if they can’t pay their rent or utility bills. Catherine Hassinger, director of community services, said since March, Catholic Charities has helped more than 315 households pay rent or keep their lights on. The emergency assistance program saw a 288 percent increase in rental aid between April and June. 

“Many of the individuals calling us for assistance are first-time callers,” Hassinger said. “They had stable employment before COVID-19 and were able to pay their bills. They might have been barely holding on, but they were holding on. When the pandemic hit, they were furloughed or lost their jobs entirely and now find themselves unable to pay for even the most basic needs, like food or rent.”
In addition to those direct services, Hassinger said her staff also provides information. 

When people call, “they are often scared and confused about what help is available to them. We help them understand what resources are available in their communities. We explain the process for seeking assistance, like what information they need to have on hand.”

Hassinger doesn’t expect a slowdown in requests for assistance any time soon. 

“About a third of our callers lost their jobs and even those who have been called back are frequently working fewer hours, which leads to a smaller paycheck.”

She said as the pandemic continues, Catholic Charities is anticipating spikes in some of its programs. 

For example, she said, protections against evictions is ending, “and we are already getting callers desperate for help with two or even three months’ rent. They are facing homelessness, they are terrified, they feel guilty for having ‘lost’ their housing and they feel helpless. The situation for many of our neighbors is going to get worse, and we are preparing for how to best help them when they reach out.”  

Catholic Charities also provides free medical care, pregnancy and adoption services, mental health counseling and assistance for immigrants and refugees. Many programs, such as counseling and English language classes for immigrants, have pivoted to offer online programs during the pandemic. 

A cause for generosity

Art Bennett, president and CEO of diocesan Catholic Charities, said that while many people are in “pandemic free fall” and desperately need help, the crisis “has inspired many more to be generous and are giving time and money to help their brothers and sisters in need. We pray that this continues.”

Between March 1 and June 30, 3,800 donors provided more than $2.3 million — that’s 1,900 more donors and $1 million more in donations than during the same period in 2019.

As with Holy Family, many parishes run their own food pantries, donation centers and other programs to meet emergency needs. Some have created partnerships or provide regular support for other community organizations, such as Arlington Food Assistance Center and Reston-based Cornerstones. 

Christ the Redeemer Church in Sterling is part of an ecumenical food pantry called LINK, which has given out 125,000 pounds of food plus $50,140 in grocery cards to 1,668 families during April, May and June. According to the pastor, Father J.D. Jaffe, from April 1 to July 22, the parish also has provided $252,700 in financial assistance to 282 families through a combination of grants from Catholic Charities, Loudoun Cares, and from private foundations, as well as the generosity of parishioners and neighboring parishes.

The food pantry at Our Lady, Queen of Peace Church in Arlington now has triple the number of clients each week at its food distribution than it had before the pandemic. Staff and volunteers have been able to continue to keep up with the need, thanks to contributions from parishioners, Catholics in other parishes, members of other nearby churches and donations from private foundations, including a $45,000 grant from the parent company of Safeway. World Central Kitchen, a relief organization founded by chef Jose Andrés, also provided meals for Queen of Peace volunteers to distribute. 

Many dioceses across the nation, including Arlington, also have relied on federal “bridge loans,” which the chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ domestic policy committee said have helped allow essential ministries to continue to function in a time of national emergency.

"The Catholic Church is the largest nongovernmental supplier of social services in the United States," said Archbishop Paul S. Coakley of Oklahoma City. "Each year, our parishes, schools and ministries serve millions of people in need, regardless of race, ethnicity or religion."

Zoey Maraist contributed to this report. 


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020