Clients line up outside the Freehold Area Open Door for food items. Those in line arrived three hours before the nonprofit agency opened its doors that morning. Photo courtesy of Margie Golden
Clients line up outside the Freehold Area Open Door for food items. Those in line arrived three hours before the nonprofit agency opened its doors that morning. Photo courtesy of Margie Golden
As the COVID-19 pandemic reaches into the new year, a cascade of problems continues to affect individuals, families and the social service and charitable agencies that are working hard to assist them.

The reality of the past 10 months is one of heightened concern, shared Marlene Laó-Collins, Catholic Charities Diocese of Trenton executive director, as the agency sees clients losing their jobs or their businesses, which lead them to seek help at food pantries or apply for assistance with utilities or rent. Many of these clients were already having a hard time making ends meet. Others are new to the struggle, with some being donors who are now clients.

“It’s a serious problem,” she stressed.

For agencies like Project Paul, Keansburg, which runs a food pantry, thrift shop and furniture store, the challenge has been significant, at times threatening their ability to meet the ever-growing need of those out of work or living in poverty.

Project Paul also assists hundreds of families to stay in their homes by providing assistance with rent to qualified families, but rental assistance was no longer available by the end of 2020.

Sal Cortale, executive director, pointed out that the number of volunteers – critical to the success of the agency’s programs – has decreased by 50 percent. “Most Project Paul volunteers are retirees over age 64, who being high risk, didn’t want to take a chance,” he said.

“Some who were willing to come back after the three-month shutdown did not because their families pressured them to stay home,” said Kathy West, director of client services.

“Volunteers who remain are working much harder,” Cortale added.

The situation in Mount Carmel Guild, Trenton, has been similar. “All our volunteers were retirees, and we were extremely concerned about their safety,” said Mary Inkrot, executive director. She asked the volunteers to stay home, making it mandatory so they didn’t feel bad about not being able to serve.

The Guild’s poverty-reduction work focuses on its food pantry, which since April 2019, has been in a partnership with Catholic Charities Diocese of Trenton, benefitting clients from both agencies. The Guild is sometimes able to help with utility and prescription assistance. Catholic Charities offers a broader range of services, so with CCDOT staff on site at the Guild, they are able to connect clients of the joint food pantry to wraparound services that might be needed.

With the dearth of volunteers and the growing number of clients, including many new people, it is the staff that is filling in the gaps, Laó-Collins said, noting that she recently had to ask staff to take on the job of unloading trucks, which would normally have been done by volunteers.

Donations have been down as well. Cortale explained that donations to the thrift and furniture shops suffered a hit initially during the shutdown period, and revenue from both dropped. Once the sites were open again, “sales started to get back to what they were.”

Cortale attributed some of that to many people getting cabin fever, who then turned to cleaning out their homes. Donations to the shops increased, though monetary donations are down about 25 percent.

It is understandable given the uncertainty of living in the middle of a pandemic, with financial collapse looming for many businesses and job losses being high. “A lot of people are concerned about life and death, and their jobs,” Cortale said.

Cascade of Problems

Joan Olden, president of the diocesan St. Vincent de Paul Society, reflected on the circumstances that are bringing increased numbers of individuals and families appealing for aid from parish conferences.

“At the start of the pandemic, we had churches and retail stores and restaurants closed; people who lost their jobs in the service or food industry or had their hours reduced will never recoup that time or money. Some went from having two or three jobs to having none,” she said.

Others started to shop online or pay someone to do their food shopping because of an inherent fear of being outside the house, especially among those considered high risk, Olden recalled.

“This was a common thing that we began to hear; having someone in the household who was already dealing with a life-threatening health issue was even more compromised than those of us who were healthy,” she said, noting that “not everyone was comfortable coming to a food pantry.”

Olden pointed out that the result of having families home on lockdown, working from home with children in the house was larger food bills. “Everyone was home and eating three meals a day. People who would never consider using a food pantry were using their savings to buy food,” she said.

Program administrators in many charitable and social service organizations have reported that financial donations have dropped since March. Some people who would ordinarily donate were now out of work.

For others, said Olden, “it didn’t seem to be an issue of not wanting to donate, as much as it was a question of how to do it. [At the beginning], our churches were closed, hence no poor boxes and no collections. 

“Most of our conferences do not have an office or a location address; parish bulletins became online only. Not everyone has the ability to get their information via a computer, and some folks had no idea where to mail a check, and they certainly weren’t going out.”

This lack of mobility is not just related to quarantine. Many clients do not own cars and are limited in their ability to get to food pantries or social service offices.

This is the case in the Bayshore area, said Cortale, who explained that Project Paul has tried to ensure it offered “one-stop shopping. We always had someone from social services available on site, as well as someone from FulFill (former Food Bank of Monmouth and Ocean County) one day a week to help clients apply for food stamps or affordable health care.”

COVID restrictions changed that, but also led to a new way to help those who need it. Since October, a newly purchased and retrofitted Fulfill Benefits Bus brings needed services to clients at various sites, including Project Paul, in an effort to break the cycle of poverty.

Collaboration the Key

Margie Golden, coordinator of outreach ministries in St. Robert Bellarmine Co-Cathedral, Freehold, stressed that during these times, “you have to be fluid and flexible according to needs and demands,” and with growing numbers of unemployed and those experiencing food scarcity, the needs and demands are rapidly changing.

Golden explained that, as COVID-19 took hold, many of the volunteers working in outreach ministries “had to step back,” for safety reasons. But, she noted, “an amazing thing happened. People who had been laid off came out to volunteer. People who had never thought about it, stepped up.”

Today, with a core group of some 10 people, Golden coordinates, among other things, the food drop off at the Co-Cathedral. Seven days a week, donors may drop off food at the church, which will be unloaded and gathered into bags and boxes by volunteers for pickup by Freehold Area Open Door, an interfaith agency that provides emergency food, emergency funding, mentoring and scholarships to those in need from the Freehold area.

As a member of the Freehold Clergy Association, an interfaith group working to foster religious tolerance and cooperation, the Co-Cathedral would ordinarily participate in the Emergency Housing and Advocate Program, a project of FCA, to provide volunteers and shelter to the homeless during the winter.

Now, with COVID restrictions, said Golden, the winter program is on hold. That means the homeless may be on the street, so the need now changes to coats and warm blankets. Golden, who stressed the “importance of networking and resourcing up,” is working closely with the Knights of Columbus to fill those needs.