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Franciscan Ministries Feel Impact of Government Shutdown

During the longest government shutdown in U.S. history – a 35-day ordeal in which 800,000 federal workers were either furloughed or working without pay – Franciscan outreach ministries from Virginia to Massachusetts provided a range of emergency assistance, including supplemental food, rent and utility payments, and other services, to government employees, peripheral workers affected by the shutdown, and recipients of interrupted federal benefits programs. These Franciscan ministries helped families and individuals survive the challenges posed by the shutdown – and they continue to provide assistance for those who are still trying to recover despite the government reopening on Jan. 25.

The exterior of St. Francis House, which offers help to government workers and other community members.  (Photo courtesy of St. Francis of Assisi Parish)

St. Francis House in Virginia
At the outset of the government shutdown, St. Francis House – the outreach ministry of St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Triangle, Va., founded 25 years ago under the leadership of pastor John O’Connor, OFM – experienced little to no uptick in traffic at its food pantry or other services. But Francia Salguero, director and outreach coordinator, at the time called it “the calm before the storm.” Her words rang prophetic. By the third week and those that followed, St. Francis House – a two-story townhouse in Dumfries that’s a 13-minute drive from the Quantico U.S. Marine base, and 40 minutes south of Washington, D.C. – was inundated with walk-ins and calls from government employees, furloughed workers of other industries and professions, and recipients of Federal assistance. In one week alone, Salguero said St. Francis House provided $3,000 in rent and utility assistance, roughly one-third of what it usually does in an entire month.

“Some people had financial reserves, but used them up by the first and second week; that’s when people turned to us,” Salguero said. “We saw a lot of new faces at our food pantry and asking for financial help with their electric, gas and heating oil bills. We noticed a significant number of St. Francis of Assisi parishioners, which is highly unusual, coming in for assistance.”

Phone messages doubled, with most callers inquiring about food and rent assistance. “We started off every morning returning dozens of calls and making appointments for people to come in,” said Salguero, noting that St. Francis House didn’t turn away anyone who came for emergency assistance – whether from D.C., Alexandria and other outside regions, or from the Eastern Prince William County service area of Dumfries, Triangle, Quantico, Woodbridge and Occoquan. “People know that the Franciscans are welcoming. At St. Francis House, we are carrying out the Franciscan vision – putting faith into action, and being there for people in their greatest time of need.” Salguero said St. Francis House responded to a segment of the population caught in the ripple effect – employees whose work hours were reduced or saw their work completely disappear, for example, restaurant and other retail food staff, gas station attendants, babysitters and child care providers, and office cleaners.

“Furloughed government workers didn’t need someone to watch their children, and they weren’t ordering lunch or driving to work. So that put restaurant workers and babysitters on furlough, workers generally living check-to-check and who didn’t have retroactive pay waiting for them when the government reopened,” Salguero said. “They are still feeling the residual effects, and it’s going to take them longer to recover. We will continue to help them.” Established in 1992, St. Francis House provides a range of services that includes prescription assistance, food delivery to homebound elderly, English language classes, a pre-school program and summer camp, meals for a local homeless shelter, and payments for medical tests and children’s eyeglasses.

 

The food pantry at St. Francis Community Center on the Jersey Shore, which offers a wide range of services to Ocean County, NJ., residents. (Photo courtesy of St. Lori Dudek)

St. Francis Community Center, Long Beach Island, N.J.
Last month on the Jersey Shore, during the height of the government shutdown, volunteers had to replenish the shelves of the food pantry at St. Francis Community Center at the end of each day. Its pantry experienced a 50 percent increase in the number of households that came for food assistance during the government shutdown, particularly in January, according to Wendy Saunders, executive director of St. Francis Community Center on Long Beach Island, N.J., which provided services to nearly 18,000 people in 2018. St. Francis Community Center, which offers a wide range of services to Ocean County residents – including preschool, recreation, education, family support, counseling, youth and senior programs – is located near the U.S. Coast Guard stations in Barnegat Light and Beach Haven, in addition to a significant population of government employees living on the island.

As a way of more effectively meeting the increased numbers, the center had designated specific after-hours time slots exclusively for furloughed government workers and military personnel. A post on its Facebook page read: “We appreciate the work that you do and understand that this is a very difficult time. Additionally, utility [bill] assistance may be available if needed.”

The shutdown ended before these special sessions were coordinated, but the needs haven’t yet ended. As busy as the center was during the shutdown, officials were expecting activity to intensify once government reopened. “One emergency – a major auto repair or medical bill – can cause families to fall behind financially. But to go weeks without a paycheck, particularly for the vast majority of people who live from paycheck-to-paycheck, is just too much to handle even for those receiving retroactive wages,” Saunders said. She noted that the center is still feeling the effects of the government shutdown on a number of fronts, more so now than during the actual shutdown – as families need help paying an electric or gas bill until they can get back on their feet.

There are also those who received in January their federally funded food benefits for the month of February – which, says Saunders, means that families and individuals could go as many as six or seven weeks, depending on how well they budgeted, before the next allocation due in early March. Saunders said the center, established in 1972, could also experience an upsurge in people seeking counseling services similar to what occurred after Super Storm Sandy. “People are busy getting their financial house in order, but once everything is stabilized, they realize months later that they’re not okay, and that they may need counseling for stress and anxiety – and quite possibly, depression,” she said. The friars, including pastor James Scullion, OFM, at St. Francis of Assisi Parish, which is located on the grounds of the center and runs three other churches on the island, are always available for spiritual direction.

Tables at St. Francis Inn in Philadelphia where hundreds are provided food and a welcoming atmosphere.

St. Francis Inn, Philadelphia
The team of friars, nuns and lay volunteers at St. Francis Inn are accustomed to responding to families and individuals who have fallen on hard times for one reason or another. Already serving 350 nourishing meals and 150 breakfasts daily, they were preparing for an onslaught of new guests during the government shutdown. “It’s unusual to have a large group of people affected by the same problem at the same time, but that’s what we were expecting,” said Michael Duffy, OFM, a member of the Franciscan team at the soup kitchen in the Kensington section, one of Philadelphia’s most impoverished neighborhoods. But it was the perfect storm that never gained traction.

Michael explains: “There was an unusual twist. With the shutdown looming, the government evidently advanced February’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits (formerly known as food stamps) when it paid out January’s benefits to SNAP recipients. As a result, our numbers actually declined slightly in January because people had two months of SNAP benefits in hand.” That scenario, says Michael, changed by the second week of February, as SNAP recipients had used most, if not all, of this month’s benefits and are turning elsewhere – to places like St. Francis Inn – to supplement their daily food consumption.

“We are seeing the effects of the government shutdown well after the fact. Things started picking up in the second week of February and we are expecting more guests than usual the rest of this month until people start to receive their SNAP benefits for March,” Michael said. “We will help as long as it takes them to get back on their feet.” St. Francis Inn has been serving meals to the indigent since 1979. The program is unique because meals are served restaurant-style, whereby guests don’t have to walk through a line as most conventional soup kitchens, but rather are served at tables. Relying on the generosity of grocery stores, businesses, churches and individuals, St. Francis Inn also provides food baskets to families and homebound elderly, and free clothing, shoes, housewares and other items at its thrift shop called Marie’s Closet.

Friars and guests at the Franciscan Food Center in Boston’s Downtown Crossing neighborhood.

Franciscan Food Center at Boston’s Shrine
Like St. Francis Inn,  the Franciscan Food Center at the church on Arch Street in Boston did not feel the impact of the shutdown until the government reopened. While freezing temperatures played a key role in keeping people indoors during the shutdown, the primary reason that greater demands weren’t made on the food center is that the federal agency responsible for administering nutrition assistance programs had a plan in place to ensure that SNAP recipients received their benefits for January and February. “We had not experienced any significant attendance increase at the food center until today – and we expect the numbers to continue to trend higher than normal right through the end of the month,” Mary Ann Ponti, director of outreach programs at the Shrine, said in a Feb. 14 telephone interview.

Human nature being what it is, Ponti says SNAP recipients have spent the entire February benefit allocation they had received in advance, so more people who receive this federal nutrition assistance will be relying on the food center to bridge them from the balance of February until they receive their March benefits.

“If the government was still shut down getting closer to March, we would be having a very different conversation,” Ponti said. That’s not to say more people are not leaning on the food center these days in the after-shock of the government shutdown. The food center’s 10 percent increase in attendance since Feb. 14 is a significant bump for a program that already serves 450 clients a week. Established in 2008, the Franciscan Food Center provides clients with two grocery bags filled with nutritious food that includes produce, dairy, meat and dry goods. With families making up 60 percent of visitors, the food center serves more than 1,100 people weekly.

Since SNAP doesn’t solve all food issues, many recipients that normally rely on the food center for supplemental assistance are expected to rely a little more heavily on the Arch Street facility at least until March. Three area homeless shelters refer families and individuals to the Franciscan Food Center once they have been placed in permanent housing. “We are a stabilizing factor, especially for people who go from the street to housing and who may be struggling with other issues like unemployment and substance abuse,” Ponti said. “We connect them to other services at the Shrine, such as our women’s health clinic, recovery meetings, and spiritual direction. People know they can come to the Shrine and get the help they need.”

— Stephen Mangione, a writer and public relations executive based in Westchester County, N.Y., is a frequent contributor to HNP Today.

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