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Michelle Chostner, left, grabbed some paperwork as Ariel Turner talked with a 211 client on the phone at Catholic Charities building in St. Louis on May 13. Since March, in addition to material goods, Catholic Charities has assisted more than 250 callers with an average of $400 in payments to landlords, mortgage holders and utilities.
Michelle Chostner, left, grabbed some paperwork as Ariel Turner talked with a 211 client on the phone at Catholic Charities building in St. Louis on May 13. Since March, in addition to material goods, Catholic Charities has assisted more than 250 callers with an average of $400 in payments to landlords, mortgage holders and utilities.
Photo Credit: Lisa Johnston

Catholic Charities opens call center to handle upswing in need

Intake social worker: ‘Every day we try to make a difference in someone’s life’

Ariel Turner tries to “make a difference in someone’s life” every day.

She helps people through a Catholic Charities of St. Louis call center that opened May 4. The center handles about 70 calls a day from people in need of help.

Turner, a social worker and a college and career counselor at Lift for Life Academy, said the work is “a great way to help people within my community.”

The intake workers make sure people meet qualifications, answer questions and sometimes make referrals to other resources. Turner also encourages and motivates callers. She said a typical caller is a single parent unable to make a full rent payment after being laid off from work due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Some people call Catholic Charites directly. If it’s related to the pandemic, it’s transferred to the call center. The center also checks a daily list from the United Way’s 211 line for callers who appear to be a good fit for Catholic Charities’ assistance. The center’s staff then follows up with those callers, making up about half of the volume.

Since March, in addition to material goods, Catholic Charities has assisted more than 250 callers with an average of $400 in payments to callers’ landlords, mortgage holders and utilities. Additional funds are needed from the community to meet the need resulting from business closures during the pandemic.

In Missouri, the unemployment rate jumped from 4.5% in March to an advanced seasonally adjusted insured unemployment rate of 15.5 percent for the week ending April 25, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Apartment List’s latest report found that 31% of respondents failed to make their full May housing payments, up from 24% in April.

Theresa Ruzicka, president of Catholic Charities of St. Louis, said the call center was needed because of an increase in calls and because of its role with the COVID-19 Regional Response Team that brought together nonprofits to address the need. Catholic Charities was selected along with the Salvation Army to co-lead the response to basic needs of families and individuals.

More than a month before the launch of the call center, Catholic Charities began addressing coronavirus relief and saw the need for a coordinated response with additional help. The first step in March was to provide $25,000 in gift cards to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul to assist with immediate help.

Tyrone Ford, director of service integration at Catholic Charities of St. Louis, said “a lot of people are suffering from unemployment, layoffs or furloughs. We wanted to provide immediate relief for folks, also with the understanding that people are going to be unable to pay rent and face eviction or face default on their mortgage.”

The call center operates 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays with an interpreter available afternoons and by appointment. It has six people handling calls in two shifts. Weekend and evening calls are returned as soon as possible.

Donations come from individuals and organizations such as the St. Louis Community Foundation and the COVID-19 Regional Response Fund. In a two-day period recently, Catholic Charities distributed more than $24,000 in aid, an amount that its leaders noted can’t be sustained. “We are truly grateful for any additional donations,” Ruzicka said.

Catholic Charities staff knows people are in need, she said, “and we want to try to help them, but we also have to be good stewards with the funds that we have. So, because of the work Tyrone and Catholic Charities have done in the face of disasters, we do have a process in talking with people to try to understand what their needs are and to get proper documentation.”

That allows the funds to help as many people as possible.

Ruzicka said that many of the people affected “are living paycheck to paycheck, and when they don’t have a paycheck they can’t pay the rent. We’re trying to help them stay in their apartments or houses.”

The leadership role Catholic Charities played in various disaster relief efforts provided the foundation for the current response. “That has enabled us to respond quickly,” Ruzicka said, noting the need to increase capacity.

Ford said the experience in the aftermath of a flood or tornado provided a wealth of knowledge to anticipate needs.

Turner, the social worker, said Catholic Charities is a blessing for people. “It feels great to fill a financial void for someone,” she said.


>> How to help

Because of the economic hardships of the COVID-19 pandemic, Catholic Charities is working even harder within its own organization, as well as with the Archdiocese of St. Louis and other community partners, to maximize its ability to minister to those who need help.

The best and easiest way to help Catholic Charities during this time is with a monetary gift. Donate at 
www.ccstl.org/get-involved/donate or mail a gift to Catholic Charities, PO Box 952393, St. Louis MO 63195.

To limit exposure to COVID-19, most Catholic Charities agencies are temporarily limiting volunteerism and acceptance of in-kind gifts; however, as urgent agency needs arise, they are posted on Catholic Charities COVID-19 Response page at www.bit.ly/2WrcWn0.


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