National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  October 3, 2003

David Dutschke and Steve Bogus of Louisville, Ky., look over reports at the Catholic Charities legislative hearing.
-- Larry Peplin
Catholic Charities hearing puts face on poverty

Meeting sets agency's social policy lobbying priorities for 2004


Martin Malook Dek showed poise and quiet confidence. They were no doubt the same qualities that had helped the young Sudanese man survive in a Kenyan refugee camp.

“What I will talk of is what I experienced in my life, and how life was terrible during that time,” he calmly said to the Social Policy Committee of Catholic Charities USA gathered in a downtown Detroit hotel ballroom, far from Third World chaos and conflict.

Dek outlined a situation so desperate that fellow refugees ran after him as he left, crying and asking what they could do to join him. Life in refugee camps is “very serious,” he said.

“You can stay two, three days without food. You drink dirty water. There is no hope. You feel like dying.”

His testimony brought an expectant, focused hush to the 75 or more audience members gathered for the legislative hearing. They pushed their attention forward like toddlers being told a gripping story. But Dek’s refugee story was only one among many earnest pleas for social policy focus in the year to come.

Olivia Faries, program manager for the Richmond, Va.-based Commonwealth Catholic Charities, said that although government approval came for up to 50,000 refugees to enter the United States this year, paperwork and approval backlogs mean that no more than about 25,000 will be able to enter. She called on board members to lobby for a boost in the limit to 70,000 for 2004 with the hope that more approvals would be made.

“They are languishing; some are dying,” she said of refugees waiting for the chance to travel here, and of undocumented immigrants willing to take any risk to enter the United States.

There was no question that the status of refugees and concern over international human trafficking had an impact on the panel -- but so did other issues, including hunger and homelessness, rural health care, psychiatric intervention for children abandoned by society and ill-fitted for foster care, and issues of aging and services to support people in economically marginal, end-of-life situations.

“I’m sure from what we heard today, some of our Level 1 priorities are going to be different from last year,” said Joseph Duffy, who chaired the hearing Sept. 13.

The legislative hearing is the first and major step in gathering information for the Catholic Charities policy board meeting in November, said Sharon Daly, vice president of social policy for the organization. Information from the hearing is used to set the agenda of social policy issues that will be lobbied to government officials in the 2004 calendar year. Duffy explained that, following board consideration of the testimony and other input, legislative priorities ranging from Level 1 through Level 3 will be set for the many issues -- all with an emphasis on the dignity of individuals, the need for the church to speak authoritatively for the interests of the poor, and with a realistic goal of knowing what can be done in the short term to impact long-term decisions.

One of the 2003 priorities, for example, was a push to avoid reauthorization of the 1996 legislation that created the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program. Under the proposed reauthorization, unrealistic work participation requirements and the potential that states would replace their own funding with inadequate TANF dollars caused concern that the bill would have given lip-service to care for the poor, but would have essentially abandoned the issue of any real advancement.

“I think [lobbying] has been fairly effective. TANF has not been reauthorized yet. If we hadn’t been lobbying, it probably would have been, and we probably wouldn’t have cared for [the outcome],” said Duffy.

Homeless issues, also a top-level priority from this year, appeared likely to continue in prominence. Presenters including Joyce Campbell, division director for the Trenton, N.J., diocese, expressed concern that current Bush administration policy seems slanted entirely to the problem of the chronically homeless, rather than to temporarily homeless families and children. Under the definition of “chronically homeless,” only an unaccompanied person with a disability qualifies to receive federal aid. “The larger group of homeless people are children and families,” Campbell said.

Bill Beitz, executive director of the Catholic Charities Bureau of Jacksonville, Fla., said that it costs eight times as much to “reverse” homelessness as it might to prevent housing loss, but prevention programs are not currently funded. If new programs are introduced, they must fit under the current grants from Housing and Urban Development. “Eventually, new programs are balanced against continuing programs. What are we supposed to do, fund one one year, the other the next?” Beitz asked.

In his own agency, 24,600 households called 80,000 times to try to qualify for one of 4,104 appointments to get aid, such as money for a utility bill or emergency rent assistance. Those are just the people who got through, Beitz warned. Telephone company officials monitored the bureau’s lines for 20 days and recorded 284,000 busy signals.

“We just need to do more than pay the rent or give them food. The bottom line is they need case management,” Beitz said.

Problems of rural communities also received extensive testimony and many board questions. Experts testifying to rural problems cited lack of health providers, coupled with lack of adequate health insurance, as a critical issue to the farmers, immigrants and service workers who live in areas of low population.

“Unless you have a way for people to go to the doctor, for kids to go to school, unless you have access to some high technology, it doesn’t matter whether the farm is doing well. The area will depopulate,” said Karen Hauser, CEO of Catholic Charities in Salina, Kan.

Neal Colby, director of social concerns for the diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo., called for efforts to help form rural health care cooperatives to do for doctors what co-ops did for telephones and electricity in areas of sparse population.

“There’s enough money in rural America to do this. It’s not necessarily that there’s not money out there. It’s that it is not organized,” Colby said.

Tim Moran is a freelance writer in Detroit.

National Catholic Reporter, October 3, 2003

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