Putnam County (and some of Northern Westchester) are part of Catholic Charites New York and are served by their own division of Catholic Charity Community Services (CCCS). The needs in that region are different because their geography is different; Putnam is mostly rural and so not nearly as densely populated as New York City. And during this pandemic, that poses certain problems.
During the best of times, Putnam is not a wealthy county. They have a significant immigrant population which means household incomes are low. Unfortunately, it also meant that when jobs disappeared during the Coronavirus, the day laborers, housekeepers and other undocumented workers couldn’t get federal or state support. As a result, food and housing insecurity has skyrocketed. But CCCS was there for their community.
Frank Kartright, Executive Director of Catholic Charities Community Services of Putnam explained that while food pantries could no longer be visited by needy-families like before, a new system grew out of their need. “We had a very successful pop-up food pantry in Brewster where we were able to get food handed out (safely) to 700 people by partnering with local parishes.” That, and the other partners who operated the traditional food pantries before changed their approach and started increasing deliveries to people homes.
In New York, Governor Cuomo put a pause, a moratorium, on evictions through June 20th. This means landlords and the courts cannot evict anyone for not being able to pay their rent. But of course, the looming concern is, what happens after June 20th? Governor Cuomo, by executive order, extended the moratorium until August 20th but the extension only applies to tenants who are receiving either State or Federal unemployment insurance benefits, or are facing financial hardship as a result of COVID-19.
The problem is that undocumented workers cannot apply for unemployment, which is the way the state measures Covid-19 financial hardship. So those folks are nervous. But Frank and his team had foreseen this problem and some time ago began conversations with landlords and tenants. The goal – to bring any rent arrears to a zero balance, and to find some negotiated rent amount that would allow both tenants and property owners to stay afloat during the crisis.
Being able to meet the community’s needs starts with being able to communicate with them. With pantries operating remotely, and community centers being minimized, and there being no conventional way for the community to gather, CCCS tapped into a network that their community had long used. Whatsapp. Between communication apps like Whatsapp, telecoms like Zoom, and good old-fashioned mail, Frank and his staff have been able to remain engaged with everyone, including the bilingual and Spanish-speaking community.
Communication only works when people reach out, and one of the challenges Putnam faced was operating without 90% of its normal volunteer force. But the existing staff stepped up and met the challenge, taking on extra work, and coming together to figure out how to provide for more people in need and fewer hands with which to do it. “I’m so proud of my staff,” Frank said, “They adapted to these challenges and showed such enthusiasm and commitment. We’re a small team but we support each other, filling in when needed. I’m very blessed.”
All of Putnam (and Norther Westchester) have a team working hard for them, never giving up, and reaching deep down to find ways to get the work done.