by PAUL A. BARRA, REGISTER CORESPONDENT
Tuesday, Aug 12, 2008 2:27 PM Comment
SPARTANBURG, S.C. — The sputtering
economy, exacerbated by high fuel prices and escalating home mortgage payments,
may be the hot story of this political season. But it is also a chilling
reality for many people who were barely able to support their families when
economic times were good.
According to a July survey of 54 of
its local agencies, Alexandria, Va.-based Catholic Charities USA has found an
85% increase in the number of people nationwide who are seeking help with
paying utility bills.
?More and more people have to choose
between putting food on the table, paying their utility bills, or making their
rent or mortgage payment,? said Father Larry Snyder, president of Catholic
Catholics across the country have
leaped into the breach, rendering assistance with their own sacrifices as
individuals and as groups. An example of both is the Polydeck Screen Corp., a
South Carolina company of 170 employees that is owned and operated by a
Catholic, Peter Freissle.
Each of the workers at this
international company, from the $12-an-hour factory floor worker to the
six-figure senior engineer, agrees with a company ?core values? statement that
says, in part, ?We strive to honor God in all we do,? according to Freissle.
The company has a Caring Committee, independent of management, which is funded
by a share of the company profits and to which employees volunteer hours.
The committee decides how to spend
both: The workers repair houses for poor people in the community, work in soup
kitchens on weekends and contribute to medical expenses for the sick, among
other outreach efforts. Harold Miller, a retired food service worker, said that
Polydeck employees renovated his house from top to bottom, including a new roof
and kitchen ? all at no cost to him.
?Peter Freissle is a good and decent
employer,? Miller said.
With the economic pinch affecting the
employees themselves, Polydeck does not ignore its own. For the July 4 break,
for instance, the committee gave all employees gasoline vouchers.
For some of the working poor, their
current needs are even more basic than needing help at the pump ? they need
food. Jason Christensen, executive director of Catholic Charities in Colorado
Springs, Colo., saw a major jump in demand this spring and summer.
?Our soup kitchen is now serving 650
meals a day, as opposed to 450 meals a day,? Christensen said.
Last year, a grocery chain named
Wegman?s, owned by a Catholic family, gave away more than 16 million pounds of
food from its 71 stores in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland and
Virginia; it was an all-time record.
?We?ve been doing this for many,
many years,? said Jo Natale of Wegman?s. ?This is perfectly good and wholesome
food that we can no longer sell for one reason or another. We?re hearing of
increased demand from all the food banks we donate to.?
The current hard times apparently
reflect the increase in need by those who might be called the lower-middle
class, families that work but cannot seem to keep up with rising costs. For the
real poor, the desperately needy, the economy has little effect on their
At St. Crispin Friary in the South
Bronx section of New York City, for instance, the Franciscan Friars of the
Renewal and their volunteers ?have been working to the max? for a long time
now, according to Father Bernard Murphy, superior. They have seen no large
increase in the homeless population they serve, nor in their free medical
clinic, food distribution or kids-at-risk programs ? despite the recent run-up
in gasoline costs.
?These people have experienced very
difficult situations and need assistance getting out,? Father Murphy said.
?They can?t get much lower.?
William Muller works with mentally
handicapped poor people on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. He has spent his
days and nights helping street schizophrenics since 1972.
?The economic times will drive some
people into homelessness,? Muller said. ?Gas and food prices are out of
?Muller takes care of about 16 schizophrenic
men at a time, getting them on the federal disability rolls, taking them to get
their mail and showers at St. Francis Church on 31st Street, putting them up at
what he calls cubicle-style hotels (?We used to call them flop houses?),
escorting them to a soup kitchen for meals and to get their clothes washed, and
to medical clinics for treatment. He stays with them during the week and lives
on about $9,000 a year in donations.
?Once I saw the face of Christ in
them,? he said, ?I can no longer view them as just homeless.?