Catholic Charities firm on its commitment to serve poor
By Mary Stamp
Catholic Charities is often involved in controversy because it is controversial to serve the poor, pointed out Rob McCann, who has been CEO of Catholic Charities of Eastern Washington for nearly 24 years.
"That's what Christ did, and it got him killed, but Catholic Charities does not shy away from its social obligation to serve the poor," he said. "It's what we are called to do.
"Our motto with people who are struggling is that love always wins. We learn to love from Christ. Love is what we show the poor. Love is what we learn from the poor," Rob continued, noting, "We also learn how resilient people are.
"When Jesus was on the earth, Jesus related with the poor, he hung out with people who were struggling, people with great needs, not those who had their lives perfectly put together," he added. "Jesus walked with the lepers, the strangers and the possessed. That's who Catholic Charities walks with.
"If someone is struggling, we will serve them," he said. "We need to love and serve the poor, not be angry at them.
"I am worried that some in the community think that all the poor are criminals, addicts or mentally ill," he said, asserting that notion is counter to his experience of people who are poor.
The biggest concern Catholic Charities seeks to address in its communications in media, speeches and writings is the public perception of the poor as being unworthy of care, as if they deserve the poverty they experience.
Rob sees a growing movement to vilify and criminalize the poor, moving from a country known for its "War on Poverty" to one with a war against the poor.
"Every human being is made in the image and likeness of God. No one deserves to be poor. No one learned to be poor. That's nonsense to those of us at Catholic Charities," Rob said. "Every human being has intrinsic value."
Countering the perception of some, he finds that no one is happy to be poor or have their life be in chaos.
Sometimes people suggest to Rob that if Catholic Charities stopped feeding or housing people there would no longer be hungry or homeless people.
"In what we do, we promote Catholic social teachings. We speak the truth to such challenges. We speak the truth to power. We speak truth to hate," Rob said. "We do not want people to fear."
Recently there was a post on social media threatening Catholic Charities because of its work on immigration.
"Immigration is a sentinel issue today. Catholic Charities throughout my lifetime has resettled refugees and served people through its immigration programs," he said. "With the ideological divide in recent years, our work has become more controversial."
Discussion and debates related to immigrants and immigration have devolved to more hate speech against immigrants.
Rob said the recent threat is not against most of Catholic Charities' 480 employees in Eastern Washington, but because of the report he has talked with staff.
"Realistically, there is a safety issue for everyone in the U.S. with the rise in mass shootings and related hate acts, speech and crimes," he commented.
As a result, in the last four years, Catholic Charities has been proactive, expanding from one to 27 security staff, spending $1 million a year on security for employees, volunteers and clients in its 102 locations.
"We are dealing with behavioral health and criminal issues, so it is important that we provide robust security for our staff, just as Providence and Gonzaga University do," Rob explained.
Clients may see the security team. Most welcome that Catholic Charities is concerned about their safety without setting up a quasi-police or military presence, he said, noting that most know security staff are there and are happy they are there.
Rob pointed out the necessity of security staff because of the increase in drug trafficking, human trafficking, guns, weapons and people who choose violence.
Before he came to Catholic Charities of Eastern Washington, Rob spent four years as a program evaluator with Catholic Relief Services in Africa, Asia and Latin America. That followed two years serving with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC) in rural Oregon and North Central Mexico. JVC has a reputation for "ruining volunteers for life," by instilling a commitment to justice, said Rob, noting that it led him to work in Catholic social services.
A native of New York City, born and raised Catholic, Rob graduated from Fairfield University, a Jesuit school in Connecticut, in 1991.
When Rob came to Catholic Charities of Eastern Washington in 1999, there were 41 staff, compared with 480 today. When he started, there were nine apartment complexes. Now there are 67. When he started, the annual budget was $4 million. Now it is $50 million with 60 percent of funding from government sources and 40 percent from private philanthropy, raised at the Christmas Collection in December, the Gala in May and year-round donations from individuals, groups and corporations.
Along with the growth in homelessness from a lack of affordable housing, an increase in rents, low and non-livable wages and a lack of mental health treatment, Catholic Charities has worked to provide housing.
"Catholic Charities goes to marginalized people in places no one goes. We provide a voice for the voiceless and make visible the invisible," Rob said. "We have continued to do that through the 30-year career of Donna Hanson and her predecessors as CEOs of Catholic Charities.
"We provide 3,000 units of housing in Eastern Washington, and 5,000 men, women and children will put their heads on Catholic Charities pillows tonight in Eastern Washington," he said.
Those units provide housing for families, farmworkers, seniors, veterans, disabled and homeless individuals and families.
Catholic Charities has been a leader in building housing since the 1960s, and has been building housing for the homeless since 2012. Funding to build housing for the homeless is available through the tax credit program in Washington.
"It would not be possible to raise the $20 million needed to build a housing complex with private funding alone," said Rob.
He supports the effort to establish a regional homeless authority to coordinate efforts for agencies and to pool city and county funding for homeless people. The authority's board will decide how best to spend funding for county and city homelessness projects to reduce overlapping services and take decisions from the hands of local governments and politicians to be controlled by a group of professionals.
Catholic Charities of Eastern Washington operates 15 programs overall.
They include CAPA/Prepares, the Christmas Bureau, counseling, Food for All, Home Resources, House of Charity, Housing, Integrated Case Management, Immigration Services, Parish Social Ministry, Rising Strong, Senior Services, St. Anne's Center, St. Margaret's Shelter and the Walla Walla regional office.
"Of the 55,000 people we serve, 1,500 are homeless," said Rob, affirming that 90 percent of clients and 90 percent of staff are not Catholic.
"We serve people based on need, not creed," he said. "We welcome and serve everyone.
"We work closely with parishes, representing all Catholics in the diocese," he said.
"Not every parish can open a shelter or soup kitchen, but parishioners want to help, so we rely on support, volunteers and donations from the parishes. CCEW would not exist without them," said Rob.
"We are proud of the work we are able to do and will never apologize for our work serving the poor," Rob said. "Our work may be controversial, but we are proud that we reach out to people in need."
Catholic Charities of Eastern Washington involves more than 6,000 volunteers, serving in different ways in 50 different job descriptions. Every project has multiple jobs for volunteers, he said.
"Our mission is simple—feed the hungry, heal the hurting, welcome the stranger. At Christmas, we invite others to join in supporting that mission,"Rob said about the Christmas Collection.
For information, call 358-4250 or visit cceasternwa.org