Critics: Catholic Charities Fails Latinos

Critics: Catholic Charities Fails Latinos
Catholic Charities staff member José Cornier packs canned goods at a food pantry in Cicero. (WBEZ/Chip Mitchell)
Critics: Catholic Charities Fails Latinos
Catholic Charities staff member José Cornier packs canned goods at a food pantry in Cicero. (WBEZ/Chip Mitchell)

Critics: Catholic Charities Fails Latinos

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The Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago says its ranks now include almost a million Latinos. Many are poor. Many have roots in Mexico. And some lack documents to be living in the United States. The archdiocese’s human-service arm, Catholic Charities, says it does all it can for the Latino population. But WBEZ has obtained some Catholic Charities records that raise doubts. We report from our West Side bureau.

Volunteers at a Catholic Charities office in west suburban Cicero pack fresh produce and canned tuna into plastic bags.

ROCOTELLO: Each month we provide food for almost 2,500 individuals.

Dalia Bagdonas Rocotello heads the office.

ROCOTELLO: The majority of people coming through are Latino. I’d say over 80 percent. The demand is just incredible. We’ve seen our numbers more than double.

The food pantry is one of 160 Catholic Charities programs serving the needy across Cook and Lake counties. The agency says about half its clients are immigrants.

PRESTON: We focus on areas of need.

Guadalupe Preston heads Catholic Charities’ Office of Latino Affairs.

PRESTON: We have Latino families that we serve in early childhood, our emergency assistance, our immigration and refugee services, counseling, nutrition programs, homeless assistance. Just you name it, we’re there.

But some immigrant advocates and pastors of Latino parishes say Catholic Charities should be doing a lot more. Illinois State Sen. Martin Sandoval chairs the legislature’s Joint Task Force on Immigrants and Refugees.

SANDOVAL: In the last few years, at the height of the growth of the Latino community, Catholic Charities has not stepped up.

The critics point to everything from Spanish-language outreach to senior housing.

AIDE: Can everyone hear? Well, we’re not going to cross our legs if we’re going to exercise.

MITCHELL: I’m inside a Catholic Charities nursing home on Chicago’s Northwest Side. Catholic Charities runs 21 apartment buildings for low-income seniors in Cook and Lake counties. But only this one and one other are in Latino neighborhoods. Even at these, less than half the residents are Latinos.

Guacolda Reyes of the Resurrection Project says that’s a shame because Latino seniors need help.

REYES: Overcrowded conditions, substandard housing conditions, renting in a basement apartment for $200, with leaky windows, very cold in the winter.

Reyes says agencies like Catholic Charities should be creating senior housing in Chicago neighborhoods like Pilsen.

REYES: Some of our seniors go and live in other senior buildings that are not located in the community because we don’t have one for them here. And they miss the social network—the culture.

Ambi: Crane.

REYES: We’re right in front of the construction site. We have all the foundation completed. You can also see…

In Pilsen, Reyes’ agency took on the task of building senior housing. She says this 73-unit facility will fill up quickly when it opens next year.

An internal Catholic Charities report indicates Latinos constitute less than 20 percent of the agency’s clients. But census data show Latinos make up 28 percent of Cook and Lake county residents living in poverty. And that doesn’t include thousands of undocumented Latinos who go uncounted.

Fr. Charles Dahm says Catholic Charities isn’t meeting the needs of the Latino clients it has.

DAHM: They walk in the door. They get their service. They walk out the door. And they’re lost to you.

Dahm is a long-time pastor of St. Pius V in Pilsen. He says Catholic Charities works parallel to parishes instead of through them.

DAHM: This is not the way the Catholic Church should be operating in the minds of most priests.

Last year Catholic Charities interviewed priests throughout Pilsen and nearby Little Village. A summary of the interviews went to a handful of top Catholic Charities officials under a cover page marked “confidential.” Several of the pastors complained that the agency doesn’t help enough in these neighborhoods. One said his parish has turned to Protestant service providers instead.

Fr. Donald Nevins of St. Agnes of Bohemia says Catholic Charities has done a good job building up services in some heavily Latino suburbs, like Cicero and Berwyn. He thinks they should do the same in some Chicago neighborhoods.

NEVINS: Because we have large undocumented populations in Pilsen and Little Village, that’s part of the reason, I think, that some of the services aren’t here.

A Catholic Charities Latino advisory committee last year called for more Spanish-language translators and more publicity targeted at Hispanics. The panel also called for Catholic Charities to review all its programs to see if they comply with U.S. Civil Rights Act protections for people who don’t speak much English.

Catholic Charities spokeswoman Kristin Ortman insists the agency already works closely with Latino congregations and puts a lot into Spanish-language publicity.

ORTMAN: We’ve produced materials in Spanish in every medium and will continue to do so. It’s an important part of our outreach to produce materials in English and Spanish and in any other language where there’s a need to communicate our message. And that’s across all programs.

Catholic Charities is one of the Chicago area’s largest nonprofit groups. It gets funding from 12 federal agencies.

U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan says Catholic Charities of Chicago is doing a good job. He visited last month to announce nearly a million dollars in new federal funding for the nonprofit.

DONOVAN: For the critical services that you provide to children, to families, to seniors, to veterans—at a time when organizations have to stretch scarce dollars—we cannot thank you enough for your leadership, your commitment and your compassion.

But if Catholic Charities is reaching out to everyone, it’s not evident in the agency’s boardroom. The 47 directors include just one Hispanic.

BATTEN: That’s an early sign as to whether or not there are real deep connections in a diverse community.

Susan Taylor Batten heads the New York-based Association of Black Foundation Executives. She says focusing on the Chicago area’s Latino population would require two things of Catholic Charities off the bat.

BATTEN: An interest and a will to retool and to do the best job it can do with the resources it has. The commitment has to come from the highest level of organizational governance.

Catholic Charities CEO Fr. Michael Boland didn’t respond to our requests to interview him for this report. Boland’s supervisors at the archdiocese also declined to speak with us.

Martin Sandoval, the state senator, says he hasn’t gotten answers either. He says he’s been asking Catholic Charities for years to provide numbers on the diversity of its venders and contractors.

SANDOVAL: They have not responded.

Sandoval can’t get the data even though he serves on Catholic Charities’ board of advisors. Served, that is, until last fall.

SANDOVAL: I seem not to be included any further in participating in their roundtable discussions.

Catholic Charities dropped the senator after he criticized the agency’s relations with the Latino community.