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Weekend edition June 17, 2022 | Kailyn Lamb

New programming at Catholic Charities of East Tennessee allows it to extend its reach to those in need

By Kailyn Lamb, Marketing Content Writer and Editor, PYA

Continuing to expand its already wide reach of programming, Catholic Charities of East Tennessee opened a new Columbus Home Safe Place for Kids near the Juvenile Court.

Whenever staff from the Knox County office of the Department of Children’s Services (DCS) need a safe place for children to stay the night, or even for a few hours as a break from court, the house is open 24/7, according to Paul Ritter, Director of Programs for Catholic Charities.

“Catholic Charities as a whole, we provide services to the most vulnerable in our region,” he said. “Fortunately, we’re available, but unfortunately, we have to be utilized.”

The Knights of Columbus brought its Columbus Homes for Children to Knoxville in the 1970s. Ritter said Catholic Charities has been running it ever since.

The new Columbus Home has a nursery and two bedrooms with multiple beds for older kids. DCS policy states that two staff members need to be in the house at all times to supervise the children. Catholic Charities added office space to the house for them to work out of. The living room space has been separated into different activity areas, including board games, television, and more.

Catholic Charities provides food, hygiene items, and clothing for children at the shelter. The organization held a grand opening for the Columbus Home on May 13 but has been able to let children stay there since April.

Columbus Home is only one way that Catholic Charities provides services to those in need. Throughout the 36-county region of East Tennessee, the nonprofit organization has numerous offices offering different types of services, depending on the needs of the area.

For example, the organization operates several housing programs. In Knoxville, Morristown, and Maryville, Catholic Charities offers supportive housing for adults with disabilities. Home Place in Chattanooga is a seven-bed facility that offers housing for homeless adults that have been diagnosed with HIV or AIDS. Close to the Columbus Home is an additional emergency shelter for children in Knox County. The nonprofit’s largest shelter, the Samaritan Place, is an emergency shelter for seniors.

As rent hikes continue throughout the Knoxville Metropolitan Area, Ritter said Catholic Charities has seen more and more seniors come to the nonprofit for aid. In many cases, they have been living in the same apartment for years, but a recent rent increase forced them to move out.

“All of a sudden they find themselves not able to afford rent and not able to afford anywhere and they have to otherwise go to the streets,” he said.

While Ritter said there is never a safe time to be homeless, it can be particularly dangerous for seniors. Catholic Charities helps seniors get all their paperwork lined up for Section 8 housing approval, a process that can take anywhere from nine to 12 months. The goal is to “leave them on a foundation to where they’re not going to have to come to an emergency shelter again,” Ritter added.

Outside of shelter, Ritter said Catholic Charities’ two core programs are its Pregnancy Help Centers and the Office of Immigration Services.

The Pregnancy Help Centers offer classes for expecting parents on how to raise children. The program is “earn as you learn,” Ritter said, meaning attendees earn “baby bucks” for each class. They can be used to purchase everyday items like diapers and wipes or can be saved for larger items like car seats and cribs.

“It really helps financially while they’re at the same time obtaining the knowledge that keeps children and parents safe,” he said.

The Office of Immigration Services works through a partnership with the Department of Justice and is the only office within East Tennessee offering legal services for immigrants for low bono or pro bono rates. Otherwise, Ritter said people have to find an individual lawyer in the region, which can be far more expensive. “It’s just not attainable for the clients that we see,” he said.

In addition to these programs, Catholic Charities offers a food pantry and meal programs. For parents, the nonprofit recently expanded the Columbus Home Assisting Parents program to Scott and Campbell counties (it was already available in Knox, Blount, Granger, and Sevier). The program offers in-house case management for parents going through a crisis or dealing with stressors. The program’s expansion was funded through a child abuse prevention grant, Ritter said.

Finally, Ritter said, the nonprofit is getting ready to launch a domestic infant adoption program. Catholic Charities is currently in the hiring phase for that and has a temporary license.

Ritter said the nonprofit’s relationship with the community is key to knowing what services are needed and where. Catholic Charities staff members attend meetings, but also solicit feedback from people on how effective their current programming is. The feedback allows Catholic Charities to not only enhance its current programming but find any gaps in the services people need.

The new Columbus Home near the Juvenile Court was an example of that. During a Safe Policy meeting, DCS staff members said they didn’t have a safe place to take children when they needed to be taken from their parents in an emergency. Oftentimes the staff members stayed with children in their office space.

Catholic Charities was able to convert a space it had been using for different programming into the new Columbus Home.

“That program got to the point where we weren’t being very effective, we didn’t think, in providing that service,” Ritter said. “It was ideal timing for that so we could continue to serve children in the community just in a different capacity that works better for us.”

Communication with DCS has been key to the early success of the program, Ritter said. The shelter is there to make things a little easier for children who are going through a tough time. “If something needs to change, we’ll change it on the spot.”

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