Desert Companion

Social: Spirit of service

Already one of the valley’s largest homeless service providers,
Catholic Charities is upping its game

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The Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada campus, all beige stucco and brown tile, blends into the streetscape when you drive by. You might miss it among the mix of apartments and businesses on this stretch of North Las Vegas Boulevard. It’s an apt metaphor for Catholic Charities itself: It generally goes unnoticed.

That’s too bad. Because over nearly 75 years, it’s quietly blossomed into one of the valley’s largest — and most vital — source of services for the poor, homeless and displaced in Las Vegas. You might expect the 8-acre site that contains everything from a food pantry and bed barracks to English classes and computer labs to be a nexus of bleakness and desperation. But no. For instance, check out the cafeteria on an typical weekday morning: Not surprisingly, it’s bustling. But it’s a calm, cheerful kind of bustling, people eating and chatting at long tables as pop music plays in the background. The music, the newish paint job (the serene purple-gray replaced an outdated salmon-and-teal color scheme) are intended to turn what might otherwise be a doleful repast into a pleasant communal meal.

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“Our security here has no weapons, no mace, no tasers,” Peggy Caspar, vice president of development, points out. “And it’s an open campus — anyone can walk in for this free community meal. It fosters an atmosphere of trust. So, how you do deal with 2,000 people on this campus every day, people who are probably stressed out and hungry?”

Dawn Davis, chief operations officer, chimes in: “By treating them with dignity and respect. There’s no yelling, no screaming. The security guards do have handcuffs, but if they have to subdue somebody, it’s the exception, not the rule.”

The openness is practical as well as philosophical. “A lot of people are what we call ‘client-resistant,’” Caspar explains. “They’re afraid to come in, to seek services. If you make it open and welcoming, maybe they’ll come in for a meal first. Maybe they’ll have a pleasant conversation, maybe get a smile. Maybe they’ll come back tomorrow.” And ideally, start to take advantage of the charity’s myriad services to get them back on the road to a stable, self-sustaining life.

The relaxed, cheerful vibe of the place belies a restless ambition. With a nearly $24 million annual budget, Catholic Charities today has more than 20 programs. Sure, they feed and shelter the homeless. They also offer legal counseling for immigrants, find jobs for refugees, deliver meals to homebound seniors and even run an adoption agency. (Fun fact: Oscar and Carolyn Goodman adopted their four children from the organization.) And they’re hoping to do more — raise their profile, conscript more volunteers and expand their services (for instance, their Meals on Wheels program for seniors currently has a waiting list of 800). They’ve even recently hired a marketing agency to overhaul their website and tell their story. “People know our name, but many don’t truly understand the breadth of our services,” says CEO and President Deacon Tom Roberts. “We wanted to add some horsepower to our message.”

They could use the help. So obsessed with the day-to-day details of feeding, sheltering and educating, even the staff sometimes might forget what the charity means to the valley’s disadvantaged. Caspar shares an anecdote: After starting at Catholic Charities, she was working late one evening when she looked out her window and saw waves of people walking onto the campus.

“I thought, ‘What are all these people doing? Where are they going?’” she says. “Then I realized. They’re coming home.”

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