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Diocesan ministries providing much-needed lifelines
BY JOSEPH LAPLANTE, Rhode Island Catholic Correspondent

PROVIDENCE — The poverty rate is deepening in Rhode Island and in response the Diocese of Providence is opening its arms even wider by way of its ministries.

While Pope Francis recently referred to poverty as a “scandal,” and called for a greater sharing among the world’s people of the planet’s vast resources, the Diocese of Providence has for many years led a successful, multi-faceted outreach effort to help meet the needs of the less fortunate in its midst.

Diocesan ministries continue to meet the growing need of the homeless, the poor, the disadvantaged who cannot afford to heat their homes, the elderly poor and young mothers and families.

That poverty is growing in Rhode Island was confirmed last week by the U.S. Census Bureau. The poverty rate was 13.6 percent —up slightly from the 2010 census — the highest in New England. The national average is 15 percent, the bureau reported.

Bishop Thomas J. Tobin said last week that being a Catholic does not mean having to choose between doctrine and charity, between truth and love. It includes both, he said, noting the array of diocesan ministries offered to care for those in need at all stages of life.

“At my prompting the Diocese of Providence has provided heating assistance to thousands of Rhode Islanders; we have opened an emergency shelter for the homeless; and now we have begun a comprehensive Cathedral Square Ministries program that provides for those individuals in the greatest of need within the shadow of our Cathedral. We have regularly supported food pantries and numerous other charitable programs throughout the State,” the bishop said.

As the starting point for families in need, the diocesan Office of Family and Life sponsors The Gabriel Project as an outreach for women during and beyond pregnancy, said Director Carol Owens.

The program assists by providing material, physical and spiritual help and by offering resources through diocesan social ministry programs as well as government programs.

“The vast majority of the women coming to us are Hispanic, Dominican, Colombian and Guatemalan,” said Kathy Loiselle, a volunteer for The Gabriel Project at Scalabrini Dulcovich Center in the Silver Lake section of Providence. “The need has increased two to three times in the past year or two. Many of the women have been here only one week. They are very grateful and the mothers always put the children first.

The needs of the mothers run from diapers to strollers, baby clothing to high chairs, Loiselle said. “We rely on donations from the diocese to help them.”

Hanoi Hernandez, 34, the single mother of three, works as a certified nursing assistant and hopes to earn enough money to attend a class to become an income tax preparer.

“It meant a lot (going to The Gabriel Project) because you know the first time you go that you are welcome,” she said. “Anything that I needed they provided. It is a lot of work. I am hoping to find a way.”

For those facing homelessness, so many men are finding their way to the diocesan supported Emmanuel House shelter in South Providence that it has been consistently strained to operate at its capacity of 35 each night for the past two years. The men start lining up to get inside for a hot meal and a mat to sleep on shortly before 7 p.m., seven days a week.

Bishop Tobin contributed to the shelter the proceeds from the diocesan Lumen Gentium Awards Banquet that honored lay people throughout the diocese for their volunteer work in their local parishes and in diocesan programs. The donation has enabled the shelter to remain open through the summer and not close in the spring at the end of the inclement seasons as it customarily does.

Dottie Perreault, the director of Emmanuel House, who at one time was homeless herself, said that from last winter until now, the shelter has seen more first-time homeless, especially following Hurricane Sandy last year.

“They are middle-aged people who always worked but were let go by their companies. Many were barely hanging on to their homes and were foreclosed,” Perrault said.

Emmanuel House opened in 2010 as a cold weather hazard shelter.

“I don’t know if I could sustain my sobriety without faith,” Perreault said. “All my staffers are in recovery on both sides of the fence. Our clients respect our judgment and advice. We find they discuss their problems with us instead of acting out.”

In addition to continued financial support from the diocese, the shelter received a major assist from the Knights of Columbus, Our Lady of Fatima Council 4331 last spring when 75 Knights, joined by some Emmanuel House residents, cleared and cleaned out an abandoned play yard behind the shelter building, which was formerly the diocesan-operated Carter Day Care Center. The garden provides fresh produce for the shelter and for local neighbors in need.

Perreault and the staff at Emmanuel House are practicing what Pope Francis is preaching: “Look, you can’t speak of poverty without having experience with the poor. You can’t speak of poverty in the abstract: that doesn’t exist.”

The Diocese of Providence’s Catholic Charity Appeal has also provided significant grants to the diocesan heating assistance program that provides immediate relief to those who cannot afford their heating bill and those in danger of utility shut-offs.

Keep the Heat On provides heating assistance to Rhode Islanders who have exhausted all other public and private forms of assistance, and has raised more than $1.5 million to help more than 5,400 Rhode Island families and individuals coping with financial struggles with oil, gas or electric bills since 2005.

“What started as a safety net to help those coping with rising energy costs seven years ago has become a critical heating assistance program for those Rhode Islanders with no place left to turn for help,” said Bishop Tobin.

Funded by grants from the Catholic Charity Appeal and donations from generous individuals and businesses who believe that no Rhode Island family should be forced to live without heat during the winter months, Keep the Heat On provides heat when all other assistance options are exhausted. Last year, the bishop awarded a total of $50,000 from the Catholic Charity Appeal to provide heat for those otherwise who could not afford this basic human need.

In the 2012-2013 heating season, the diocese assistance program assisted over 1,017 households with heating assistance, according to Jim Jahnz, Emergency Services coordinator of the Diocese of Providence.

“It was an incredibly trying time for Rhode Island families,” said Jahnz. “Over the past few years, we have seen a steady climb in the number of households that we have helped. There was a definite spike during the 2008-2009 heating season (coinciding with the height of the recession), but our numbers have steadily increased and are reaching the level of the 2008-2009 season again.”

Jahnz is gearing up for a hard winter for the needy.

“I expect that the demand for assistance will continue to be great,” Jahnz said. “The state’s unemployment level remains high and unemployment insurance is running out for many families. That, coupled with other cuts in federal LIHEAP assistance, indicate that it will be a hard winter for Rhode Island families.”

Jahnz said for many, Keep the Heat On is truly the last resort for households that have no heat, or are facing a turn off notice from the utility company. “Often times, families that receive assistance do not receive enough to last them through the winter,” Jahnz said. “It is important to remember that an early season frost or spring time snowstorm isn’t uncommon in our area and for families facing a several months long heating season there is nowhere else to turn. That is where Keep the Heat On comes in.”

Staff at the diocese’s St. Martin de Porres Senior/Multipurpose Center report increasing numbers of individuals seeking their senior services.

Established in 1970, the Center collaborates with more than 40 area agencies to serve the elderly, their families and the disabled.

“We predominantly serve the low income African-American and Hispanic population,” Esther Price, executive director. “Poverty does not come in a vacuum, we serve the children and grandchildren of our population. We advocate for them in every way. They are not going to hang on the phone for Social Security, pushing 1,2,3,4. We cut through the red tape. When we call or when we call and say we are calling for the diocese we get results for them.”

On the menu at St. Martin de Porres Center are Meals on Wheels lunch five days a week; health screenings for stroke, Alzheimer’s Disease, for caregiver groups; bingo, fitness classes, Wi-bowling; educational programs that cover legislation, advocacy computer classes, how to spot scams and safety advice; and social services, group counseling, group and individual case management, living wills, durable powers of attorney and notary public services.

Need is deepening judging from the numbers of people coming to the food pantry at the center. Visitors to the pantry have increased in the past month, said Price.

Where the center would see 11 people a week earlier this year seeking food or clothing, the number has climbed to 30 people a week, and when the number children supported by each pantry user is multiplied, “all of a sudden I am saying, ‘We are going to need more food,” Price said.

“We will need an increase in our food supply to keep up with our demands or we will have a line around the corner,” Price said.

The population coming to the center is composed in Price’s phrasing, “The poor, the middle class poor, the working poor and those on the fringes of the middle class.”

The diocese’s Immigration and Refugee Services ministry offers citizenship classes to prepare legal permanent residents for the citizenship exam. The office recognizes that individuals have a better chance to gain more resources and rights as United States citizens. This will allow them to continue to contribute to American society but actually gain something back for their hard work and commitment.

English as a Second Language classes (ESL) are offered at Blessed Sacrament Church 239 Regent Avenue, Providence. The class times and schedules vary depending on the class, some are held during the day and others in the evenings.

Tutors for refugee students are offered assist refugee clients who have children. Their children are enrolled in school but need extra help reading, writing and speaking English in order to keep up with their school work.

Without a doubt