It is a crowded-but-calm scene on Thursday morning, just before 9 a.m., in the lobby of the James Cardinal Hickey Center in downtown Washington, DC. About 50 people, including a woman with a seven-month-old baby girl, are packed in chairs against the walls, waiting for Catholic Charities of Washington, DC to officially open for the day.
A little after 9 a.m., people are asked to check in with a receptionist before they are led downstairs to begin meeting with Catholic Charities workers.
Unlike the majority of the people serviced by Catholic Charities, these people are not homeless, or even jobless: they’re furloughed government workers facing a partial government shutdown which has already lasted 26 days.
"We don't normally serve people who are government workers. That's not our normal population; (which is) people who are homeless, or have lost their jobs or don't have the ability to feed their families,” Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington president and CEO Fr. John Enzler explained to CNA.
“So this is a different group, and we want to be there for them as well, because this is a shock to their system to have no income, to have no paycheck."
This is the first time anyone can recall Catholic Charities of Washington being asked to provide assistance for furloughed workers.
For three days, at a set time and location, any furloughed government worker or federal contractor is eligible to receive up to $500 to help with rent, medical needs, or “essential home supplies.” Catholic Charities writes a check directly to the service provider. Catholic Charities explained on their website that they are not currently assisting with water, gas, or electricity bills because companies that service the Washington area have already established programs to help furloughed workers.
While the first two distribution days saw a “decent crowd” according to Enzler, Thursday’s was by far the largest. He told CNA that he suspected this was due to the location of the office, which is near all of the city’s metro lines. The first two locations were accessible only by car.
Catholic Charities of Washington got involved through a partnership with United Way of the National Capital Area. The President and CEO of United Way, Rosie Allen-Herring, reached out to Catholic Charities, and asked them to be one of the three charities to receive money to assist furloughed workers. Catholic Charities was picked because they have a "pretty broad spectrum of services," Enzler said, and are present throughout the southern Potomac area.
"It's a chance for us to become a player in trying to help people who have been affected by the shutdown," he added.
Catholic Charities COO Pat Dunne told CNA that he “didn’t know what to expect” when it came to assisting furloughed workers. He said that it was “a question of getting the word out, and our communications folks worked really hard to get the word out to everyone."
One of the people who received word that Catholic Charities would be providing assistance to federal employees was a woman named Zenola.
Zenola told CNA that she has worked for Housing and Urban Development for nearly 20 years. She has been furloughed the entire length of the shutdown.
She said that her daughter saw a notice about the program on Facebook, and she called Catholic Charities to ensure she would be able to receive assistance.
“They told me to come on down,” she said.
This past month without pay has been tough for Zenola and her family.
“We’ve been hit pretty hard as far as our January bills,” she said, and although she has tried to save money, she’s “exhausted” her savings account trying to keep up with bills for her mortgage, car, and other expenses.
Zenola was grateful to Catholic Charities for the assistance, and said she and her family “really, really, really” appreciates it.
Catholic Charities received $36,000 to allocate on a first-come, first-served basis, and Enzler expected that money would be exhausted on Thursday. His prediction looked to be accurate: by 9:45 a.m., the lobby was full once again.