Residents enjoy a holiday party pre-pandemic at Sacred Heart Villa in Southeast Portland, one of Catholic Charities’ senior-care properties. The nonprofit now has resident coordinators and other staff regularly call residents. (Courtesy Catholic Charities)
Residents enjoy a holiday party pre-pandemic at Sacred Heart Villa in Southeast Portland, one of Catholic Charities’ senior-care properties. The nonprofit now has resident coordinators and other staff regularly call residents. (Courtesy Catholic Charities)
Each week or so during the coronavirus pandemic, residents of Catholic Charities’ 900 affordable housing units get a phone call from the nonprofit’s staff, who check in about health and food security and link individuals with services. The call can be a lifeline for the approximately 1,900 people — a mix that includes individuals who are formerly homeless, those with disabilities, immigrants and seniors — living in Caritas Housing, a program of Catholic Charities. For many, the check-in offers something basic but at times the most critical: a human connection during crisis.

One resident, a single mom, recently needed food assistance. She also was trying to help her kids, who have special needs, with remote learning while juggling her own work from home.

Catholic Charities provided a gift card for food, “but she told us it was so nice just to have somebody to talk to, to connect with about what she was struggling with daily,” said Rose Bak, chief program officer for Catholic Charities.

Some seniors have said the call is the only time they’ve spoken to a person all week. Older residents “feel very lonely and isolated,” Bak said.

Caritas Housing owns 17 properties, primarily located in the Portland metro region but also in other parts of the state. Nearly half of the properties include on-site resident services coordinators, who help people maintain housing and physical and mental well-being. The coordinators assist with budgets, offer youth and adult programming, such as homework club, yoga and bingo, and ensure residents have sufficient food.

When the coronavirus forced much of Catholic Charities’ staff to work remotely, “we became really worried about our residents,” said Bak. The agency launched a plan to have coordinators and other staff regularly check in with every resident at all 17 sites. It was an ambitious effort, and to make it happen the nonprofit redeployed staff who’d seen their workload diminish with the shift to remote operations.

The same person calls a resident each week so they can maintain a relationship.

“Absolutely the No. 1 concern has been food insecurity,” said Bak. Especially at the beginning of the pandemic, “people got panicked quickly.”

Catholic Charities helps people obtain food through its own or other relief organizations’ feeding efforts.

The agency has had a food pantry at its main offices in Southeast Portland for years. During the pandemic, that ministry has expanded. Catholic Charities also has added a mobile food pantry that visits housing where many people lack sufficient food.

Along with food insecurity, another worry is how to pay rent. Many residents work in the service industry and retail and have lost their jobs. There currently is a moratorium on late fees and evictions related to nonpayment of rent during the pandemic, but residents are struggling to cover utilities.

And while the moratorium “is great and it’s helpful, people are worried about the end balance,” said Claire McIlwain, a resident services coordinator. At some point they will need to start a payment plan, but they may not have work yet.

“The long term is scary for them,” she said.

Bak noted that mental health is on the minds of staff during the regular check-ins. “If someone clearly sounds like they’re anxious or depressed, we’ll ask if a member from the counseling team can give them a call,” she said.

Before the coronavirus, Catholic Charities offered almost daily programs for youths at some housing locations. They’ve attempted to maintain a level of connection, for example assigning tutors to work with kids digitally.

McIlwain said that in spite of the difficulties residents have faced, there are developments to celebrate.

“It’s been really wonderful to see the way that the residents have come together in all this,” she said. Though they are separated physically “there’s a stronger sense of community; people are being really considerate of each other, really supporting each other.”

katies@catholicsentinel.org