In her work as case coordinator for Supported Housing Services at Catholic Charities of Chenango County, Magean Casella is on the front line of providing hope and help to those in particular need.
Her customers are living with mental illnesses, she explained. Their conditions can range from severe depression to schizophrenia, and can make it difficult for them to meet the compliance requirements of other support services. They are also facing homelessness and, with no homeless shelters in the county, they are living in tents, in cars and RVs, on friends’ couches. Most have children. Many are working, but not able to make ends meet.
With some 16 percent of the county’s population living below the federal poverty level, according to a 2013 Community Health Assessment, they are not alone.
“A lot of our clients have fallen through the cracks,” Casella said.
Supported Housing Services aims to offer these customers a hand up.
First and foremost, the program ensures that people with diagnosed severe and persistent mental illnesses have access to safe, affordable housing and community services.
“When you’re talking about mental health [issues], addiction, physical health issues, priority number one is, ‘Let’s put a roof over your head and make sure you’ve got food in your belly,’” said Gary Quarella, director of community outreach at Catholic Charities. “Then we can talk about the rest.”
The program offers assistance in securing stable, safe housing, with Casella sometimes advocating for customers who aren’t yet able to do so for themselves.
The program also provides stipends to help customers pay their rent. “We currently have 48 people on the stipend list,” Casella said, as many as the program’s budget allows. “They pay no more than 30 percent of their income for rent and we pay the remaining.” Casella noted that there is always a waiting list for the stipend program. There is also limited funding for one-time or emergency needs, like a utility shutoff or home goods, Casella said.
While there is no time limit on participating in the Supported Housing program, its aim is to support customers as they ultimately transition to a higher level of self-sufficiency, Casella said. Not all customers are able to make that transition, but others have moved on to federally-funded housing and even homeownership.
“Our agency doesn’t want to just give a handout,” Quarella said. “We want to be able to give a handout when somebody’s struggling, but also help them to take a breath and give them a hand up so they can think further down the road.” And that’s Catholic Charities’ overall mission, he added: “empowering those in need to transform their lives.”
To help customers achieve food security and economic self-sufficiency in addition to housing stability, they are also connected with services both inside and outside Catholic Charities. Staff help to ensure they have appropriate access as needed to services such as mental health care and other counseling, Catholic Charities’ food pantry and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits (formerly known as “food stamps”), literacy programs and job skills training.
Casella and Quarella said that they receive new referrals every day, but that they also see some tremendous successes. They both smile when talking about a mother, once addicted, incarcerated and eventually homeless, who now has a stable home, custody of her children and a degree from the local community college.
Stories like those, Quarella said, show what is possible with a little support, a second chance, a hand up.
“When you want to offer up hope and healing — healing underlined — use a ‘housing first’ model,” he said. “You’ve got to meet people’s basic needs first so they can take a breath and say, ‘Okay. I’m going to be okay tonight. I can think beyond tonight.’”
To learn more about the programs and services offered by Catholic Charities of Chenango County, visit www.ccofcc.com.