One day it can be a call from a formerly-prominent disco producer at a prestigious Manhattan address who has landed on hard times and is in danger of being evicted. Or a family in the Bronx needs to navigate the state’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP), as they have fallen behind in rent. And, on a sweltering mid-July Tuesday, dozens of migrants arrive impromptu on a bus from Texas, with instructions to seek help at Catholic Charities offices at First Avenue and 55th Street.
For Xanthe Sonza, assistant director of Case Management for Catholic Outreach Services, there is no typical day. And that’s how she likes it.
She has been at Catholic Charities since 2019 and in that time has lived the on-the-ground ethic of the agency, helping those of all and no religious backgrounds.
“I get a piece of everything,” she says during an interview from her sixth-floor office overlooking First Avenue. “You get to see what’s on the ground.”
You can tell that she has a good heart and really wants to help.
That’s the social work dimension of her work, which she bolsters with a master’s in that subject from the prestigious Columbia University School of Social Work. She combines that micro dimension with a view of the bigger picture, part of her supervisory role at the agency.
Some in social work prefer the dimension of advocacy, addressing large issues that keep people trapped in poverty and despair. Xanthe prefers the gratification of helping people one-on-one.
“You are able to help the community, to understand and empower them,” she says.
Her daily routine can prove a godsend for people navigating troubled times.
ERAP provides help for New York tenants who were unable to pay rent because of Covid-related job crises. Filling out the forms can be an intimidating process for some seeking help. Assisting them and others seeking aid from government and foundation sources is a big part of Xanthe’s work.
“It helps people feel a little less anxious. It helps them stay in their homes and not on the street,” she says. At Catholic Charities, “we are on the frontlines at what’s happening in terms of people’s needs. A lot of people are suffering. There is a lot of struggle.”
One of the people Xanthe helped through the Covid crisis was Jay Ellis Lieberman, who called the Catholic Charities hotline expressing fear that he might lose his apartment. “His voice at the time was so desperate I couldn’t get it out of my head,” she says.
Now in his 80s, Jay was there when disco emerged. He produced albums for megastars, including Gloria Gaynor, was a Studio 54 regular with the major and minor celebs whose limos lined up across the street from his Manhattan apartment, and even passed on a record by a young singer from the Detroit suburbs who called herself Madonna.
If you listen carefully to “Doctor’s Orders,” the disco 1974 hit by Carol Douglas, you can hear Lieberman’s voice on a phone call setting up the song with a simple “Hello” (it took him eight takes over two days to get it right).
“I was in the middle of everything,” he says.
Now the music has died, the strobe lights are in storage, and the business no longer relies on records or record producers. In addition, Lieberman took some severe hits during the Covid pandemic. As the pandemic emerged in the early spring of 2020, Lieberman’s roommate left, leaving him with a rent he could not pay. And his 52-year-old daughter, Deirder Anderson, died in her sleep at a residential facility for the mentally ill.
Jay’s finances are a long way from his disco days, when he would routinely spend weekends in Puerto Rico and readily help friends down on their luck with financial assistance.
“I helped a lot of people, I don’t remember all the money I gave away,” he says.
As the pandemic raged, beset by grief and financial woes, Jay was threatened by homelessness, a daunting prospect for an elderly man with no immediate family.
Xanthe arranged for a grant from a donor, assistance that got Jay over a personal crisis.
“She cares,” Jay described Xanthe. “You can tell that she has a good heart and really wants to help.”
While Jay was once atop of the world, Xanthe’s work more often involves helping those who never had much to begin with. That was the case in July when dozens of migrants, sent from buses from the Texas border, ended up at Catholic Charities’ offices. She and other Charities’ workers moved quickly to address needs and prepare for more. They quickly ordered up Gatorade and snacks.
“They didn’t have anything. A lot of their things had been confiscated,” she says. Few had any connections in New York and were hungry and thirsty in the 90 degree heat, many had worn-out shoes from long travels through Mexico and to the border. They came from all over the world: Venezuela, Colombia, Haiti, Congo and Russia. Catholic Charities was their first stop in New York.
In crises big and small, Xanthe likes to get involved with people. With Catholic Charities for the past three years, she has worked for an array of social service agencies. As an undergraduate at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, she volunteered to assist the Asian community in the Boston area. She says her work is a kind of prayer, walking with vulnerable people, whose needs are only known when they show up at the door or call the hotline.