By Kenneth J. Souza
Web Editor

FALL RIVER, Mass. — Even before the looming threat of COVID-19 completely derailed life for everyone, there were already people throughout the Fall River Diocese who were struggling to find work, housing and food. And the restrictions now in place during the pandemic have only created additional hurdles for them to clear.

That’s why the many departments under the umbrella of the diocesan Catholic Social Services office have been diligently working to provide assistance and comfort to them during these difficult days.

According to Susan Mazzarella, CEO of Catholic Social Services, even though many things are closed during the pandemic, the essential services and programs at CSS have remained active and busy.

“Although the offices in Fall River, New Bedford, and Hyannis are not taking walk-in clients as a result of social distancing, the staff are present and working,” Mazzarella told The Anchor. “Anyone can call directly and be connected to a program or service. The agency has shifted to a triage strategy, prioritizing the immediate needs of the homeless, sheltered, and those with food insecurity.”

Mazzarella said they first had to delineate what services were considered “essential” or “non-essential,” and then focus their resources on meeting essential needs.

“These included individual and family shelters, food pantries, basic needs, immigration, and housing,” she said. “As a result, other programs such as adoption and ESL classes have been put on hold.”

One of the immediate concerns for Mazzarella was to make adjustments to ensure the safety of those in shelters operated by CSS such as the Samaritan House in Taunton, the Sister Rose Network in New Bedford, and the St. Joseph and St. Clare Houses in Hyannis to “minimize the risk of exposure for both staff and guests.”

“In accordance with Department of Public Health guidelines, shelters had to ‘depopulate’ to accommodate the requisite six feet of space between beds, and guests must sleep in a head-to-toe configuration to comply with social distancing,” Mazzarella said. “To reach this goal, St. Joseph’s shelter in Hyannis had to decrease its census from 50 per night to 40 guests. Typically, these shelters are night shelters. This means that shelter guests leave in the morning and return in the evening for a bed.

“However, since this pandemic, we are encouraging guests to remain in the shelter during the day. St. Joseph’s mandates this; Sister Rose and Grace House in New Bedford are encouraging shelter guests to stay in the soup kitchen space throughout the day and not venture into the community to minimize exposure. The Samaritan House in Taunton could not adequately depopulate due to the size and layout of the building, so the shelter guests and operations have been moved to a tent behind the shelter that was provided by the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA). St. Clare’s is not taking in any new residents, and the current residents must remain in the home to minimize exposure from the community.”

Enhanced screening protocols have also been put in place at all shelters, including a questionnaire before admittance and checking for COVID-19 symptoms before each shift. Portable hand-washing stations have been installed at the entrance to each shelter, and Mazzarella said staff members have all been provided with gloves, masks and face shields. Masks are mandatory for both guests and staff members, “high touch” surfaces are cleaned every two hours, and each site is professionally cleaned on a daily basis.

“The challenge is minimizing exposure, because whenever a shelter guest leaves and returns, or a new guest enters the shelter, the environment runs the risk of new exposure,” Mazzarella said. “Having shelter guests remain in the facility throughout the day has required additional staff and resources for this significant modification, so each shelter is constantly evolving and adapting as this pandemic progresses and as new guidelines and mandates emerge.”

In addition to these individual shelters, CSS also oversees the HOUSE family shelter program under which 76 families are now living in “scattered-site” shelter units. Mazzarella said CSS staff members remain in contact with them daily via telephone and they also deliver necessities to them such as diapers, food, cleaning supplies, and activities to provide support during the crisis.

“To assist those struggling with food insecurity, the Sister Rose Soup Kitchen remains in operation Monday through Friday, but has switched to take-out meals only,” Mazzarella said. “The Solanus Casey Food Pantry in New Bedford remains open Wednesdays and Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 12 noon and has been reconfigured to maintain social distancing. This pandemic has amplified the poverty level as the pantry has experienced a 51 percent increase in usage.”

Mazzarella stressed that none of the services CSS provides would be possible without the dedicated staff members who continue working at these facilities.

“The courage, compassion, and dedication of our staff members working in the shelters and food pantries is both unparalleled and deeply inspiring,” she said. “These staff members are in a high-risk environment where they had to modify every aspect of their job functions to maintain safety for their clients, guests, and themselves. They come to work amidst these challenges yet remain mission-driven. CSS is providing hazard pay to compensate them for these increased risks and demands. In addition, staff from other programs are given a stipend to encourage them to support their colleagues in the shelters and food pantries. Our staff faces the fears daily with strength and commitment — they are heroic.”

While inquiries for most CSS services have escalated during the pandemic, Mazzarella said the Basic Needs and Housing Counseling departments have been less active in recent weeks.

“This is largely due to eviction courts being closed, restrictions on foreclosure proceedings, and an increase in short-term unemployment compensation,” she said. “However, there have been many calls from people who have lost their jobs and are concerned about being evicted once the courts and leasing management offices re-open. We anticipate these departments will be flooded with calls once the pandemic is over. Households have been devastated economically and will need a great deal of financial assistance to regain stability.”

While CSS relies on the charitable support of those throughout the diocese during the annual appeal, financial contributions or donations of in-kind services are always greatly appreciated — even more so during this crisis.

“CSS is happy to receive any financial donations to offset the additional expenses to the shelters,” Mazzarella said. “For the Samaritan House in Taunton, we are also looking for help in providing breakfast and dinner meals in take-out containers because operations are now in the tent.”

Mazzarella said they are also trying to make resource baskets that will be delivered to some of the homeless families currently living in the “scattered-site” shelters. To fill these, they are looking for donations of: diapers (sizes newborn, one, two, three, four and five), baby wipes, cleaning supplies such as magic erasers, Lysol disinfectant sprays, bleach surface cleaners, Clorox disinfectant wipes, dish soap, personal hygiene products such as deodorants, toothpaste and toothbrushes, and bath soap.

They are also seeking activities for children such as coloring and activity books, crayons, colored pencils, puzzles, board games, drawing pads, or school items. Anyone wishing to donate any of these items can call one of the CSS offices to make drop-off or pick-up arrangements:

— Attleboro: 800-259-0382;
— Fall River: 508-674-4681;
— New Bedford: 508-997-7337;
— Cape Cod: 508-771-6771; or
— Taunton: 800-259-0382.

CSS staff will then distribute these donations directly to the families.

And if the pandemic weren’t already challenging enough, staff members at CSS have had to deal with the sudden loss of Kathy Wilson, case manager at St. Joseph Shelter in Hyannis, who recently died of cancer that hadn’t been diagnosed until a few weeks ago.

“They were initially expecting her to return and they lost a loved and respected member of their team,” Mazzarella said. “They cannot express their grief in a public way due to this pandemic placing restrictions on funerals.

“I think this virus magnifies loss — loss of freedom, loss of resources, loss of loved ones. It also accentuates immediate grief and simultaneously mandates that grief must be postponed.”

On Friday morning, May 1, about 30 guests and 20 employees at the St. Joseph House homeless shelter in Hyannis were tested for COVID-19, according to a report from The Cape Cod Times. While the test results were still pending, arrangements have already been made to transfer any infected people to one of several hotel rooms that have been allocated by the Cape and Islands Regional Network on Homelessness COVID-19 Emergency Planning Team.

Moving forward, Mazzarella said it’s difficult to predict how the Coronavirus pandemic will ultimately impact CSS services in the future, but she’s confident things will be changed.

“Certainly, we will need to examine what services need to be fortified and which were under-utilized,” she said. “We will have to assess what new services should be developed to reach populations and geographies and address needs that CSS might have missed during this pandemic, and that may emerge as a result of it. We will also look at enhancing our organizational infrastructure to nimbly, quickly, and effectively respond to any future emergency.”

And while the daily grind has slowed to a crawl for many in the last few weeks, it’s also provided some time to reflect on things we often ignore.

“As far as lessons learned, I’m sure there will be many to reflect upon once we transition away from this crisis,” Mazzarella said. “We can see that loneliness and poverty are magnified; however, generosity, assistance, and heroism have also been amplified. We have learned that these challenging, frightening circumstances are what draw us all closer to our mission, and closer to our faith.”