As president and CEO of Catholic Charities of Central Colorado, Mark Rohlena is responsible for the organization that seeks to help the region’s poorest people. Based at the western edge of downtown at Platte and Cascade avenues, Rohlena leads the umbrella organization for several efforts to assist the unfortunate, though he says those people are not always who you think they might be. Often, they are those with jobs and families who are teetering on the brink of homelessness.
Most in Colorado Springs might know Catholic Charities through the Marian House, which operates the soup kitchen where last year more than 200,000 meals were served, many to those you might expect, but many to those you might be surprised to see.
Rohlena took some time this week to talk to the Business Journal about Catholic Charities and his work in downtown Colorado Springs as well as around the region.
What is Catholic Charities’ mission? What programs do you offer, and how many people do you serve each year?
Catholic Charities’ mission, summed up, is to bring members of the community together in Christ’s love, without proselytizing, to be neighbors to one another. Catholic Charities operates seven service ministries and covers 10 counties. Our main location is in Colorado Springs, but we also have a new office in Castle Rock.
The Marian House is designed to be a one-stop location. We provide space to partner agencies at no charge to complement our services. Legal aid, financial literacy, substance abuse and mental health counseling, medical care, income tax and benefit assistance, and much more are available at the Marian House. We also have great referral relationships.
We have deep poverty here, and the economic downturn that began in 2008 brought 40 percent more people to our poverty reduction programs.”
• In the Soup Kitchen, we served more than 214,000 meals last year. The majority of our visitors are our working poor: seniors on a fixed income and families with jobs, relying on a little help to avoid homelessness. We serve many of those who are homeless in the area too, and we work with everyone who comes to us, regardless of their faith or means. About 1,500 volunteers per month from every imaginable denomination, business and community group serve at the Marian House, and we rely on food donations from throughout the community to feed hungry people 365 days a year.
• Client Services provides adults with transitional services along with case management toward greater levels of self-sufficiency. Last year, we served more than 30,000 people in this program.
• Life Support Services works with families with children to provide infant and child necessities along with case management. The average income of clients in this program is $7,400 per year. We administer COPE utility assistance, and recently instituted an early literacy program. We served almost 15,000 people (also receiving other services) last year.
• Community Outreach brings the services of the Marian House to those who cannot access us. Outreach workers bring food, clothing, furniture and household items throughout the metro area and the 10 counties we serve. Community Outreach helped almost 5,500 people (also receiving other services) last year.
• Catholic Charities also operates three other ministries: Life Connections, our licensed adoption agency and counseling program; Family Immigration Services, through which we conduct English language courses as well as immigration and naturalization counseling; and Parish Social Ministries, which works with parishes to meet needs at a very local level.
How is Catholic Charities funded and how many staff members does it have?
Individual contributions are our largest source of support. Churches and foundations also assist us, as do many corporations and community groups. We receive support from the Diocese of Colorado Springs, and a portion of our funding comes from government sources.
We have 48 staff members across all of our programs and rely heavily on volunteers.
How severe is the poverty situation in Colorado Springs, and how does it compare to other cities?
Every city is unique, but many forget that El Paso County is now the largest county in the state by population. We are a growing area, one that brings together many diverse groups of people. We have deep poverty here, and the economic downturn that began in 2008 brought 40 percent more people to our poverty reduction programs, just as the new Marian House opened. Unemployment in Colorado Springs is still high, and the “working poor” are more numerous than ever.
Do you think Colorado Springs residents are adequately aware of the poverty and homeless situation?
I don’t think any of us are fully aware of the poverty around us, whether in the downtown area or our own families. Poverty is a lack of something — often a lack of love, not things. There is always more that can be done to get to know our neighbors’ need. I would be happy to give anybody a tour of the Marian House to see the need firsthand.
Some people say the Marian House soup kitchen is a key contributor to vagrant loitering around downtown businesses. How do you respond to this?
The downtown area includes public property, and individuals who are without adequate food or shelter naturally go to these places. Catholic Charities and other providers locate their ministries where the people in need are found.
Real criminal activity is a law enforcement issue and we don’t support anybody engaging in such behavior. But it is not a crime to be disheveled or in need. I don’t have a greater right to sit on a park bench than somebody with no home. We must try to find new ways to reach out to our neighbors. How often have we made significant changes in our own lives because some stranger told us to? Rarely. We listen to people who care about us, who have taken the time to get to know us. This is our approach, to develop relationships, and in those relationships amazing things can happen.
That’s why we started the Homeless Engagement and Response Team (“HEART”) program. Staff and volunteers work as street outreach teams to engage with those in need, raising awareness and connecting them to available resources, as well as providing businesses with resources.
We would love additional community support in terms of volunteers and monetary donations to make this twice-weekly program happen every day.