‘Poverty tour’ for new archbishop highlights area agencies
May 6, 2009
By Carmen M. Hubbard
ARCHDIOCESE —In an unprecedented effort to see firsthand the progress made by local Catholic agencies that help those in need, Cincinnati Coadjutor Archbishop Dennis M. Schnurr recently met with directors of some of the organizations learn more about their ministries.
Much has been accomplished, the archbishop was told, but there is still more work to be done.
On April 24 Archbishop Schnurr visited the Drop Inn Center in Over-the-Rhine; the Society of St. Vincent de Paul on Bank Street; and Working In Neighborhoods (WIN) in South Cumminsville as part of a “poverty tour” hosted by Tony Stieritz, director of the archdiocesan Catholic Social Action Office.
“The opportunity to visit and learn about the work of the agencies that serve the poor and needy in the Cincinnati area was both a joy and an inspiration. I witnessed and experienced the joy and deep gratitude of those who have benefited from a helping hand,” Archbishop Schnurr said. “And those who offer that helping hand continually emphasized how enriched their lives have been because of their interaction with our less fortunate brothers and sisters. The mutual respect and gratitude is uplifting and inspiring.”
The tour began at the Drop Inn Center with Pat Clifford, executive director, and Sister of Charity Sister Louise Akers, a member of the agency’s board of trustees. Upon entering the building, guests and volunteers sensed the presence of an important visitor but seemed unsure as they greeted Archbishop Schnurr. They asked the archbishop if he was a cardinal.
Archbishop Schnurr responded with a smiling “Not yet” to the men.
Clifford and Sister Louise explained that the center’s mission is to never turn anyone away. The center promotes human dignity and supports positive social change by providing shelter for the homeless and a residential drug and alcohol treatment facility.
The Drop Inn Center serves about 250 homeless men and women per day — 3,700 people each year — according to Clifford. The agency prepares 300 meals three times a day. The center receives funding from U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD).
Clifford and Sister Louise emphasized the importance of assisting the city’s homeless. As developers work to revitalize parts of Over-the-Rhine by renovating vacant buildings into new businesses and condominiums, the center continues to face challenges of finding new ways to help low-income residents of the neighborhood who have been forced from their homes, along with homeless people with nowhere to go.
“This can be the lowest point of someone’s life or their turning point,” Clifford said.
While visiting the center’s treatment facility, Archbishop Schnurr was introduced to a patient named Mike, who shared with the archbishop the story of his 15-year struggle with drug addiction.
“I basically got my life back by coming up here and doing things I’d never thought I’d be doing,” Mike said.
Archbishop Schnurr left Mike with some words of encouragement as they shook hands before parting ways.
“Don’t look back. Look forward. Life is worth living. I am very happy for you,” Archbishop Schnurr said.
Despite the center’s location in a section of Over-the-Rhine with a high crime rate, its volunteers become transformed once they get involved and want to help even more, Sister Louise explained.
“People have resisted the Drop Inn Center because of certain crime in Over-the-Rhine. Once people get to know the staff and the people here, it all comes together,” she said.
At the Society of St. Vincent de Paul (SVDP), Liz Carter, executive director, and Bart Kohler, chairperson of the board of directors, escorted Archbishop Schnurr and Stieritz through the agency’s pharmacy, chapel and food pantry.
In 2008 more than 80,000 people from Greater Cincinnati received assistance for emergency needs to pay a portion of their rent and utilities from SVDP. The agency provides transportation, food, clothing, furniture and companionship, according to agency officials. Like most nonprofit agencies, SVDP remains heavily dependent on its 800-plus volunteers.
In addition to helping insure peoples’ basic needs are met, the staff and volunteers also offer prayer as a way to encourage those in despair and express their faith for their fellow Christian brothers and sisters.
“A lot of what we do is help tackle their own insecurity and deal with it,” Carter told the archbishop. “You just don’t walk away and say it’s somebody else’s problem. This is a place where people can live their faith. It’s a huge blessing that we have the archdiocese’s strong support group.”
Executive directors of local social service organizations — including Clifford of the Drop Inn Center; Don Sherman of the Cincinnati Interfaith Worker’s Center; Kathleen Donnellan of Catholic Charities SouthWestern Ohio; Ray West of Interfaith Business Builders; Sister of Charity Mary Jo Gasdorf of The Women’s Connection; and Mary Burke of Over-The-Rhine Community Housing — participated in a lunch discussion with Archbishop Schnurr about their respective agencies and expressed concerns for the people they serve.
“Our biggest challenge is to make sure refugees and immigrants get equal service,” Donnellan said.
Stieritz said the Catholic Church is called to help the less fortunate and the downtrodden. West said agencies should join forces as a way to generate understanding to help minimize despair for the people they serve.
The directors all agreed more affordable housing is needed and discrimination toward immigrants — regardless if their status is legal or illegal — should be addressed.
“I am so thoroughly impressed at the distinction between career and vocation. Career is what you do. Vocation is the meaning of my being. That’s very encouraging and inspiring,” Archbishop Schnurr told the directors. “There’s an awful lot of volunteerism that’s good because it helps those in need. We get more out of it than we give. I know it sounds trite. Faith is alive and well here.”
In South Cumminsville, Sister of Charity Barbara Busch, who is the executive director of WIN, introduced the archbishop to residents who shared their success stories of avoiding foreclosure thanks to WIN. WIN promotes homeownership, neighborhood organizing and economic learning through community education and housing development. The outreach agency has gained notoriety for its work to prevent foreclosures and keep residents in their homes.
WIN’s 2008 foreclosures study, “The Crisis Next Door,” illustrates the predicament in Hamilton County. Foreclosure filings increased by 6.3 percent last year, compared to 2007. Of the 6,673 foreclosures, 1,355 of them were filed in city of Cincinnati, 315 foreclosures were in Colerain Township, and 217 foreclosures were in Springfield Township.
“Foreclosures affect everybody, across the board,” Sister Barbara said.
During the tour, Sister Barbara and Dave Scharfenberger, director of training at WIN, escorted Archbishop Schnurr to see three newly renovated homes that eventually will be placed on the market and sold to families.
A single mother of three shared her success story of renegotiating her mortgage with her finance company and being spared a foreclosure last year.
“With the mortgage company being out of state, I was just at a loss. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to fix the problem,” the woman told the archbishop.
“Foreclosures have been a crisis in our neighborhood,” said Marilyn Evans, a community organizer for WIN. “We want our neighborhood back.”
WIN also receives funding from CCHD. Sister Barbara said she’s grateful for the funds that have made programs at WIN possible and enabled residents to stay in their homes.
Archbishop Schurr agreed.
“Twenty-five percent of the CCHD grant stays locally. We’ve got to depend on ourselves,” he said.