Catholic Charities Responds to COVID-19 in Houston

Throughout the “stay home – work safe” order in Harris County, we have been checking in with our clients to understand more about how they are responding to the public health crisis. Many of our clients are on the frontline of the social safety net, and provide essential services to people in need. Last week we spoke with Andrea Usanga of NHBP/C3 about how behavioral health providers are stepping up their support.

This week, we sat down with Betsy Ballard, Director of Communications at Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston to learn how they are adjusting their approach to respond to COVID-19. 

Catholic Charities agencies across the United States provide social services designed to alleviate poverty. The local agency operates critical services throughout the Greater Houston area. Each year, Catholic Charities in the Galveston-Houston area serves nearly 100,000 people with programs that aim to prevent hunger and homelessness, legal services for immigrants, education for new parents, support for seniors, and many others. Their goal is to live out the Catholic social teachings, being people of faith who are helping people in need. 

How is COVID-19 impacting the work of Catholic Charities?

COVID-19 is absolutely impacting the work we are doing. We continue to provide services, but for the most part, the services are being provided by phone and email, not in person.

We continue to provide the most essential services to individuals who are in need. We do that through case managers — professionals who interact with people to provide social services in a more structured way. They make a plan to anticipate future needs, and set goals so that they can find a solid path to self-sufficiency.

Case manager at Catholic Charities.
Image credit: Catholic Charities Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston

We also continue to provide essential services such as food pantries that stay open for drive-through distribution. We are adhering to all the protocols of the CDC as well as local government and health professionals, and we practice social distancing in all aspects of food distribution.

Just today, I followed a case manager delivering food to seniors who are enrolled in our senior program. The case manager took a bag of food to every doorstep, left it there, stepped back, and made sure that the person inside came out to retrieve the food while the case manager maintained a safe distance.

We have not stopped serving. We think that the COVID-19 pandemic is going to cause us to have to step up and do even more than we are already doing.

Is COVID-19 impacting the morale of staff? How are they feeling?

I think it would be natural for everyone to be stressed during this time.

We are communicating with our staff to make sure that they receive a video message regularly from our president, Cynthia Colbert, so they can see her face and know that our mission is intact.  

If staff has to have more direct contact with people through the food distribution, we are ensuring that they have access to personal protective equipment as much as possible.

I think that everyone is feeling very committed to this mission because Catholic Charities has a history of serving during times of disaster. And this certainly qualifies as a disaster, by all means. So we are old hands at helping people during the most difficult, challenging periods in our history and our staff understand that, and I think they rise to the occasion.

How does this compare to what happened after Hurricane Harvey?

After Harvey, we all could see the enemy. It was the damage left by the floodwaters. Now we have an invisible enemy. So it’s very difficult to compare. 

I think this is going to feel like it lasts longer simply because the city isn’t really fully up and running. A week or so after Harvey, we were moving around and getting back to approaching normal as best we could.

There were many of us who weren’t suffering the worst effects after Harvey, but COVID-19 affects everyone across the board. There’s an eerie, long lasting nature to this. I think it’s something that is just out of our scope of imagination right now, frankly.

I know Catholic Charities was already working to adapt to new policy changes around refugees from the state government a few months ago. Can you talk about how you were dealing with those challenges prior to COVID-19 and how that work is continuing to be impacted by everything that’s going on?

Prior to COVID-19, I think the biggest issue for us were the unknowns regarding the number of people who would be allowed to enter the United States. All of that is on hold right now.

In terms of new entries to the United States, it is very quiet because we don’t want a lot of people moving around the globe right now because of the pandemic.

We are serving refugees currently through our phone and email contact. The case managers who work in our refugee resettlement program have really been on the phone and in contact with clients, making sure that they’re informed. They are getting the latest information, the latest advisories, and making sure that the financial assistance continues.

We’re now mailing checks to the refugees. Before, we were obliged to give those checks to them in person. 

Has Catholic Charities implemented any new programming to specifically help with COVID-19?

The delivery of food and supplies to the most vulnerable households is something that we’ve not been able to actively take on in the past and we need to do it now.

We have seniors who normally would come to our Mamie George Community Center in Fort Bend County for a nutritious, cooked weekday meal, and they can’t leave their homes right now.

Now, we’ve told our seniors to stay home, do not come to the center. For their safety, we are delivering shelf stable meals so that they have replacements that they would have received from coming to the center. Delivery is a completely different kind of activity for us.

We’re doing instruction and meetings virtually, using technology like pretty much the rest of the world right now to replace face-to-face contact. That’s different for us as well.

The drive-through food distribution program has gone so well for us, and it’s really been inspiring to see how our staff and many volunteers have rallied. I think it shows the best of humankind and the best of the people who are in our community.

Packing green beans for food distribution.
Image credit: Catholic Charities Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston

Houston is known for its generosity and its ability to rise to the occasion when disaster strikes. There may be a lot of unknowns and uncertainties and frankly scary things about all this. 

What are your concerns about the long term impact of COVID-19 on Catholic Charities and the clients you serve?

Our primary area of concern is meeting the increased need.  The economy will have to recover from this, and the people who have been in service industries and are in the lower paying jobs are the people who will most be affected. That’s the population that we have traditionally served, and now that’s magnified many times over.

We are doing what we can and we’re seeking donations and assistance from our friends in the community and from any new donors that we can identify. We just have to have faith that, as we move forward, we will continue to be able to do God’s work with providential assistance.

What can the community do to help?

You can help by making a gift to our pandemic response fund at Financial assistance is what we need the most. It will allow us to get the resources that we need in order to continue to serve the most vulnerable people in our community. 

Carly Sessions

Carly is a social worker turned technologist who is passionate about using data to improve the social safety net.