Deadly pandemics are nothing new to the 104-year-old organization known as Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago.
Founded in 1917 as the Spanish Influenza Epidemic was sweeping the globe, Catholic Charities originated as a central charity intended to relieve the burden on Catholic parishes as they struggled to meet the needs of the poor in their communities.
Over 100 years later, the organization continues to serve the community of Suburban Cook County in many ways. Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago is a member of the community’s improvement team, working together to reduce and end homelessness for populations. By participating on this community-wide team, Suburban Cook County has made tremendous progress in reducing veteran homelessness, working towards functional zero.
In the last two years, Catholic Charities has also focused on sheltering and supporting its most vulnerable residents during yet another pandemic — Covid-19.
Magalie Augustave, Department Director of Supportive Services for Veteran Families and Veterans Employment, and Millicent Ntiamoah, Associate Vice President of Housing, have each dedicated more than 20 years of their careers toward housing veterans and other people experiencing homelessness in Suburban Cook County.
Both women feel their work to reduce and end homelessness in their community is connected to Catholic Charities’ roots as a faith-based organization.
“Feeding the homeless, housing the homeless…it’s all part of our broader mission,” Ntiamoah said.
“If you really want to be God’s hands and feet, there’s opportunities to do that.”
— Magalie Augustave
An approach shaped by faith
That aim is to fulfill the Catholic Church’s role in the mission of charity to anyone in need by providing compassionate, competent, and professional services that strengthen and support individuals, families, and communities based on the value and dignity of human life.
Augustave explained that they don’t simply look at the fact that a person coming to Catholic Charities may need housing — they also see how else they can be of service.
“We’re looking at the whole individual, versus just that one need,” she explained.
Indeed, as one of the largest private, nonprofit social service agencies in the Midwest, Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago offers 150 programs at 164 locations across Cook and Lake counties. Annually, the organization assists more than one million people, without regard to religious, ethnic, or economic background.
“We serve everybody in need that comes to us — they don’t have to be Catholic,” Ntiamoah said.
Catholic Charities’ housing services take a Housing First approach, which means they prioritize providing permanent housing to people experiencing homelessness in order to end their homelessness, rather than requiring them complete service programs or address other challenges first.
“Most of our services don’t have a lot of conditions in terms of the people that we serve and how we serve them,” Ntiamoah commented.
Catholic Charities’ adoption of this approach is rooted in Catholic Social Teaching, which is based on an understanding of human life and human dignity, emphasizing that every human being is created in the image of God, redeemed by Jesus Christ, and therefore is invaluable and worthy of respect as a member of the human family.
As the organization’s mission states, “Far from limiting our focus, our Catholic identity and values enable us to truly be ‘universal,’ which is what ‘catholic’ really means. The tenets of Catholic Social Teaching call us to serve everyone, regardless of their belief or background, and to employ anyone, not just Catholics, who commits to our mission.”
Mobilizing communities of faith to respond during COVID-19
As with many organizations, the Covid-19 pandemic has made these efforts even more challenging — but also more necessary than ever.
“Within Catholic Charities and those who [work in] housing, this was a time that people really needed us,” Ntiamoah said. “So for us, pandemic or no pandemic, we’ve been working, we’ve been doing what we need to do, because everybody needed to be housed during that period of time.”
Their work has been impacted by factors that include staff turnover and an increase in the needs of clients who seek support, with more people requiring additional wraparound services like mental health support.
“Within all that, we keep moving, and we keep doing what we need to do to make sure that everybody that comes to us has a roof over their head,” Ntiamoah said.
Collaboration is a natural fit between Catholic Charities and local communities of faith, as people often go to churches when in need. That was, in fact, the impetus for the creation of the organization. In turn, church members look to Catholic Charities to find ways they can help others throughout their communities.
“If you really want to be God’s hands and feet, there’s opportunities to do that,” Augustave said.
As part of the Archdiocese of Chicago, Catholic Charities receives support and volunteers from local Catholic parishes across Lake and Cook Counties. Local churches regularly “adopt” families to financially support or furnish entire apartment units or homes for a person or family experiencing homelessness. Parishioners also stock food pantries and host monthly dinners for people in their community.
“These are their neighbors, these are people that they see in their grocery store, the cashiers bagging their food,” Ntiamoah said. “It’s nice for them to know that they’re supporting the people that live within their communities.”
Continuing to serve and work toward ending homelessness
As the Covid-19 pandemic continues, so will the efforts of Catholic Charities to reduce and end homelessness. As Augustave explained, she feels it’s necessary work — necessary to the fabric of society. But she and others in the field approach it with their whole heart.
“They do it because they want to be there doing it,” she said. “Catholic Charities fulfills its mission by doing God’s work.”