The Society of St. Vincent de Paul, throughout its more than 185-year history, has been dedicated to serving people in need. Today, that might mean helping a family avoid eviction from their home or paying a utility bill to keep on the lights and heat.
As it looks to the future, the organization is focusing on not only helping people out of a crisis but also giving them the tools to be self-sufficient.
“The Society of St. Vincent de Paul has a 70 percent success rate and an excellent reputation in resolving short-term emergencies, such as evictions and utility cut-offs, etc.,” said Joe Bibeau, president of the Society’s Nashville District Council.
During the 2018-19 fiscal year, the eight conferences at parishes that make up the Nashville District Council provided $439,674 in financial and in-kind assistance, including:
• $109,988 for housing assistance, primarily for rent or mortgage delinquencies to prevent foreclosures or evictions.
• $126,679 for utility bill assistance to prevent the shutoff of electricity, heat or water.
• $69,033 in food assistance.
• $19,004 in transportation assistance.
• $6,008 in medical assistance.
• $9,723 in clothing assistance.
• $9,906 in furniture assistance.
• $65,490 in other assistance.
The eight conferences handled 2,406 cases, helping a total of 4,079 people and conducted 536 home visits, 105 prison visits, and 82 eldercare and hospital visits.
Although the Society has been a significant source of aid for people in need, “We would like to address a more permanent, long-term change with the people that we help,” Bibeau said.
In the coming year, the Nashville District Council plans to implement the Society’s “Systemic Change” program.
The program targets people in the diocese “who are impoverished and live from day-to-day,” Bibeau said.
The Sytemic Change program was developed by the national staff of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul USA in conjunction with Phil Devol’s Bridges Out of Poverty organization, and Dr. Donna Beagles’ Poverty Institute.
Under the program, the Society’s members and volunteers act as mentors and facilitators to help move people from dependence on government and charity programs to self-sufficiency. The program has a 70 percent success rate.
Through the Systemic Change program, the Nashville District Council is trying to address the issue of predatory lending, which can have a devastating effect on people living in large, urban areas and on minorities in particular, Bibeau said.
Predatory lenders typically offer title loans and payday loans that end up trapping the borrower into frequent, short-term renewals that require interest and fees up to 500 percent or more.
“We think that it’s a significant problem (here in the diocese), and that it especially affects the living-from-day-to-day population,” Bibeau said.
Previously, the Society would try to help people by paying off the entire loan, Bibeau explained. But that limits the amount of loans an individual conference can address, he said.
Instead, the Nashville District Council has made arrangements with Sumner Bank and Trust to serve as a conversion lender. The Society guarantees the loan, which allows the replacement lender to provide competitive interest rates of around 5 percent and extend the terms of the loan so the monthly payments are lowered to a manageable level, Bibeau said.
The new program includes budget training and allows the borrower to obtain a bank account and develop improved financial habits, which ultimately results in an improved credit score, Bibeau said.
Each person in the program, which the Society refers to as a neighbor, “has a mentor who steps in if it looks like he or she is about to default on their payment,” Bibeau said.
The Nashville District Council also is partnering with the American Job Center to help improve the job prospects of the people the conferences are helping.
“Many of those we serve are in continual financial crisis because they are trying to support a family on a minimum wage job,” Bibeau said. “Many do not have a high school diploma and have no additional skills.
“The American Job Center, which is financed by generous government grants, is looking for candidates to train and prepare for better jobs in order to meet their grant commitments,” he said.
The American Job Center provides classes to help people earn their GED, computer skill training, job interview skills, job counseling, clothing to wear to interviews, work tools and clothing, and transportation to the training sessions.
The Society conferences can refer candidates to the American Job Center. “We are a valuable source to them for finding people in need (of job training) with whom they have difficulty locating,” Bibeau said.
The Society of St. Vincent de Paul currently has eight conferences operating in parishes in the diocese: St. Henry Church in Nashville; St. Christopher Church in Dickson; Immaculate Conception in Clarksville; St. John Vianney Church in Gallatin; St. Matthew Church in Franklin; St. Edward Church in Nashville; Our Lady of the Lake Church in Hendersonville; and St. Patrick Church in McEwen.
The Nashville District Council is hoping to start more conferences in the diocese so it can serve more people in need, Bibeau.
“We hope to engage St. Rose of Lima in Murfreesboro, St. Ann’s in Nashville, and are in the early stages of communication with a few other parishes, hoping to bring them aboard next year,” Bibeau said.
If anyone is interested in starting a Society of St. Vincent de Paul conference in their parish, contact Ron Szejner at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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