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Catholic Charities to cover federal funds for programs itself, for now

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2013, at 7:25 p.m.
  • Updated Thursday, Oct. 10, 2013, at 5:11 p.m.

On any given day, Harbor House in Wichita gives secret and safe shelter to about a dozen battered women and their children. Last year, Catholic Charities executive director Michael Burrus said, Harbor House took in and protected 982 women and children, many of the women having been beaten, abused and made fearful.

Last week, with the federal government shutdown looming, Burrus convened a meeting of the leadership at Catholic Charities Inc.-Wichita Diocese and pointed out that about half its operating money for Harbor House and programs helping thousands of other desperate and vulnerable people comes from government grants and other support.

And most of that support was federal money. He asked everyone what Catholic Charities should do if that support stopped. As he put it later in a memo to staff members: “In short, if the government is out of business, Catholic Charities cannot expect to continue to receive funds to support these programs or to pay staff to run them.”

The answer from staff members and his bosses, including the interim diocese leader Monsignor Robert Hemberger, was to eat the cost for now and keep Harbor House, the foster grandparent program, the Marriage for Keeps and many other programs open. Catholic Charities won’t be able to do that for long, though, he said.

“They all said, ‘Absolutely, we need to keep them open,’ ” Burrus said.

As a result, Burrus posted a memo to staff members that said: “The services provided by the agency in central and southeast Kansas are too vital to the thousands of clients it serves, accompanies and defends, and the staffs of these programs are too essential to furlough its employees or cancel scheduled programming. Instead, Catholic Charities will assume the financial responsibility to keep its doors open and its programs and staffs in place for the foreseeable future.

“A prolonged government shutdown would force a reconsideration of the initial decision to carry on the services normally provided by the agency, however,” he wrote. “Much is expected from those to whom much has been given , and we must trust God to lead us in our service.”

If the shutdown lasts longer than a couple of weeks, the agency might have to shutter programs, he said in an interview.

“The only reason we’re able to do this is that we have our donors who stick with us through thick and thin, and we have the United Way and other people looking out for us,” he said. “We decided we can take some financial risk.”

About half of Catholic Charities’ $8 million annual budget comes from government support, mostly federal support, Burrus said.

About 75 percent of Harbor House money comes from federal grants, he said.

Catholic Charities runs about 15 programs that could be damaged by the federal shutdown, Burrus said. Chief among those are Harbor House; the foster grandparent program, in which 115 people mentor and read to children at 58 local sites; and the Marriage for Keeps program, which helps families struggling to stay married.

But there are smaller programs also, such as the St. Anthony Family Shelter, which shelters homeless families.

Catholic Charities is not alone in Wichita in its dependence on federal funding, but the across-the-board impact of the shutdown is still taking shape.

Delane Butler, vice president of marketing at United Way of the Plains, said in an e-mail that its affiliate agencies had projected to receive about $23 million in federal funding during 2013. Butler said that total did not include grants passing through state agencies nor Medicaid and Medicare payments.

One of the agencies, Child Start, has seen no impact from the shutdown.

“Nothing is happening to us at the moment,” executive director Teresa Rupp said.

Child Start, which administers Wichita-area Head Start and Early Head Start programs, is funded on a grant year that runs from May 1 to April 30, Rupp said, so it still has access to funds. Head Start grants are reviewed and approved on staggered fiscal year calendars because there are so many around the country.

“It was some funny little fluke in the system that actually worked in our favor,” Rupp said.

There have been no changes in operations at Child Start and none are expected, she said.

“Anything that makes me not have to send 4-year-olds home is good in my book.”

Contributing: Stan Finger of The Eagle.

Reach Roy Wenzl at 316-268-6219 or rwenzl@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @roywenzl.

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