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Posted December 15, 2008

Church agencies try to help
as unemployed Americans search for work

By Mark Pattison
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- More Americans are losing jobs, and Catholic agencies are trying their best to tide them over until they find new work.

The United States shed 533,000 jobs in November, the most in any single month in 34 years. The national unemployment rate climbed to 6.7 percent in December -- itself a 15-year high -- up from 6.5 percent in October.

But 6.7 percent is the average. Many states' unemployment rates are considerably higher. In Michigan, beset by auto-industry woes, it was up to 9.3 percent in October. Joining it was Rhode Island, whose unemployment rate shot up from 5.1 percent in October 2007 to 9.3 percent in October 2008. California, the nation's most populous state, recorded 8.2 percent unemployment this October.

Rounding out the states with the highest unemployment rates were South Carolina, 8 percent; Nevada, 7.6 percent; Alaska, 7.4 percent; Illinois, Ohio and Oregon, each at 7.3 percent; and Mississippi, 7.2 percent.

Janice Luongo, director of Mary House in Providence, R.I., said many patrons at its soup kitchen and meal center are filled with despair and anxiety caused by unemployment and an inability to pay food, rent and utility bills.

Some, who are employed full time in low-paying jobs, are frustrated because they cannot put gasoline in their cars or afford to live in better accommodations. "You can tell that they are sliding downhill," Luongo observed.

But now, 25 patrons will get an opportunity to gain valuable life and job training skills through a new initiative called the Thrive Mentoring Program. It will match volunteer mentors' skills with the needs of people who need to learn how to complete job applications, open and balance a checking account, acquire social services, shop at the supermarket and become strong self-advocates.

Several computers have already been donated to the program. Students from Dominican-run Providence College will teach basic computer skills and show patrons how to use the Internet.

As bad as things are in the Detroit area, the crisis could even worsen. "I, as well as everyone else, am concerned about the tremendous loss of jobs that would come from a Chrysler-GM merger. The whole church of Detroit would be hurt," said Father Duane Novelly, pastor of St. Matthew Parish in Detroit.

Collections are down about 10 percent from a year ago at Our Lady of Refuge Parish in suburban Orchard Lake, Mich., according to pastor Father Gerald McEnhill.

Although situated in an upscale suburb, job losses and home foreclosures have hit people in the parish. "We are seeing requests for assistance significantly up through our St. Vincent de Paul conference, and we try to help," Father McEnhill said.

With unemployment at 10 percent-12 percent in several counties in the Diocese of Sacramento, Calif., and the cost of groceries up 7.2 percent over last year -- with the price of milk and eggs alone spiking 25 percent to 40 percent higher -- working families are scrambling for financial stability.

Rocio Rocha, case manager at Centro Guadalupe in Sacramento, a program of Catholic Charities, reports "more clients, more phone calls, more people calling with really, really high utility bills and disconnect notices."

"People are losing their jobs," Rocha said. "I have encountered people with five, seven, 10 years at a company laid off because there is a lack of business, or the company is going out of business, or their work hours have been drastically reduced.

"In the past we saw people on welfare or already in some sort of assistance program," she noted. "Now we are seeing more working, middle-class families. People call and say, 'I've never asked for help before, but I have children and I need help.'"

At Northern Valley Catholic Social Service in Redding, Calif., executive director Don Chapman notes that charities across the six counties it serves have been "substantially impacted by increased need."

"We're getting more calls from people who need help," Chapman added. "Unemployment is high. There are few sources of employment up here, and La-Z-Boy, McMahon's and Mervyns are shutting down."

When businesses close, it not only means fewer jobs but also fewer resources to help the poor. Mervyns used to provide a "child spree" to outfit low-income kids for the school year, and contribute to the agency's Christmas Adopt-a-Family program, Chapman noted. He anticipates a jump in the number of families registering for the program this year.

Don Johnston, a retiree and member of Precious Blood Parish on Pawleys Island, S.C., about 20 miles south of Myrtle Beach, has had a ministry of helping unemployed parishioners find work. Now, though, rising joblessness prompted parish leaders to ask him to conduct a series of networking seminars, with the first scheduled for Dec. 11.

"Those that are well-networked have a greater opportunity to secure employment and change careers than those who aren't," said Johnston, whose own career had been in job staffing.

During the seminar, there would be details about the region's job markets, word from the unemployed about "roadblocks" to work, and to "learn from the group what it is that they believe ... where they need the help. About 30-45 minutes of this networking meeting will be an opportunity for those who attend to sit down with each other ... talk with each other about what their experiences are, and ask for help," Johnston said.

Though advance registration was small, "we're expecting an enormous number of people," he added. "Once we have this meeting, the word will begin to spread."

In Anchorage, Alaska, one woman received a rare treat as she was escorted around St. Francis House's food pantry. There, in a nearly empty refrigerator, was a large roll of ground meat. She held it close to her chest, then put it in her basket and wiped away a tear. "I knew God was still with me," she said as she collected her bags of rice and beans.

It was a typical afternoon at the Catholic Social Services emergency food pantry.

Mercy Sister Jean Pyper remembers one wintry afternoon when the pantry was down to only bags of beans and rice. It fell to her to tell a waiting room full of clients.

"Almost no one left," she said. "You know people are really hungry if they'll wait an hour for beans and rice."

"It's amazing how people need food vouchers, need rent assistance, need utility assistance, literally helping a family through underemployment and unemployment," said Brian Corbin, head Catholic Charities for the Diocese of Youngstown, Ohio.

Church agencies can give immediate help, he added, but also try to guide those seeking relief toward longer-term goals beyond "OK, what am I going to do next month?"

Catholic Charities is a member of the Ohio Benefit Bank, an online program in which a Catholic Charities caseworker can sit with a person, enter demographic information into a Web site, and unearth the state, local and federal benefits that they could be eligible to receive.

"We can help them submit their applications to the right agencies," Corbin said.

Corbin recalled when the late Bishop James Malone of Youngstown tried to buy a closing steel mill when the steel crisis hit Ohio's Mahoning Valley 30 years ago. While that effort failed, it led to a working relationship with the Catholic Campaign for Human Development on worker-owned businesses.

"Here in Ohio we have worked closely with Kent State University, with John Logue, who heads the Ohio Employee Ownership Center. From my understanding, there are more employee-owned businesses (in Ohio) than any other state in America," he said. "We have several employee-owned businesses in our diocese."

When Bob Podgorski and four other unemployed members of St. Hubert Parish in Hoffman Estates, Ill., a Chicago suburb, got together in early 2003, they decided they wanted to help people like themselves with both practical resources and emotional support.

Since then they have helped more than 10,000 people with twice-monthly networking meetings at St. Hubert; frequent resume-reviewing sessions; and job-seeking seminars. Twenty-seven other suburban houses of worship are now involved and host events. All services are free.

A 12-member board runs the ministry and 120 volunteers help with everything from reviewing resumes to registering participants.

"Our mantra is, 'Through faith there is hope and through hope there is a future,'" said Podgorski, who noted attendance is growing.

Figures released by the state of Oregon's Employment Department showed the state had 3,400 fewer jobs in August 2008 than a year earlier, and that seasonally adjusted payroll employment had declined in four out of six months.

With the latest losses, Oregon had given up at least 9,900 jobs since last February.

"When you compare today's job numbers to the growth in working-age Oregonians, the picture isn't pretty," says Michael Leachman, a policy analyst for the Oregon Center for Public Policy. "The mismatch results in workers losing bargaining power, making wage gains more difficult to achieve."