This week, Catholic Charities Spokane will move into a renovated building at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Division Street near downtown Spokane. Recently, executive director Rob McCann, 39, explained how his agency is weathering the 2009 downturn. The agency’s annual Christmas collection was down by about $100,000. But Catholic Charities’ staffers are learning survival skills from those they serve – longtime survivors of poverty.
Q. Why is Catholic Charities moving now?
A. For years, we’ve had all these little offices all over Spokane. By moving (our programs) in here, we’re saving $110,000 a year, just on leases. But most importantly, for clients it’s one-stop shopping. If you’re a single mom with three kids and you’re riding the bus, it’s a heck of a thing to go three places to get three different kinds of help. This building was an accidental blessing. The (Spokane Diocese) bankruptcy happened, and the Chancery was liquidated as a result. Sacred Heart Medical Center then agreed to buy the building for us. They gave us a very generous payback structure. That dialogue (with Sacred Heart) happened only because the diocese went into bankruptcy. The old phrase that God shuts a door but opens a window – that’s what happened.
Q. What is the symbolism of the building?
A. We didn’t plan on building in the worst economy since the Great Depression. We did only one “ask” to raise money for the renovation. We sent it out in September and three days after it hit mailboxes, the stock market died. We’re going to look back on this and say we opened this building in some really tough times. If we can open this building, we can do anything.
Q. What have you learned from the clients about survival?
A. When everyone says “No you can’t,” somehow our clients find a way to say, “Yeah, I can.” We’re saying, “Yeah, the economy is awful, and the state budget is looking worse every day, but we’re going to find a way to get through ’09.”
You talk about the rainy day. It’s raining! There are two lists out there. The list of companies going under, and the list of people who are saying we are going to find a way. We’re on that list. (Former Federal Reserve Chairman) Alan Greenspan talked about irrational exuberance years ago. We have rational exuberance right now.
Q. Explain rational exuberance.
A. For most of our clients, there’s never a good reason to have a positive outlook. They say, “My husband beats me. I’ve lost my kids to CPS. I’m hungry. Tell me one reason to have a positive outlook.” We convince these people every day that they should. We have to practice what we preach. We need to have exuberance because for us, faith is rational, and this is a leap of faith.
Q. What people do you look to for inspiration from the 97-year history of Catholic Charities in Spokane?
A. I look to two people – Father Frank Bach and Donna Hanson. The two of them really built the agency. Father Frank is still here. When Donna died, after 30-plus years of being director, people said “How are you going to follow in those shoes?” I said I’m not going to even try. All these buildings are paid for. The programs are financially healthy. All I’ve got to do is not screw it up. There isn’t a day I don’t ask, “What would Donna do or say?”
Q. Do you have advice for other agencies and companies here?
A. As a community, we’ve become addicted to bad news. People almost thrive on it. It’s so antithetical to the human spirit. My only advice is to try to find the good news. It’s really easy to say there is nothing we can do. That’s a cop-out. That’s the same thing when a client says, “I can’t get cleaned up. I can’t get my kids back from CPS. I can’t stay on my meds.” We say, “You can and we’re going to help you.” The power of the human spirit wins every time.
You look through history and in the darkest moments, we did the greatest things. Look at the 1960s. (President John F. Kennedy) gets shot and (President Lyndon) Johnson comes in and the War on Poverty happens. That’s why Catholic Charities is here, in large part. Something good will come of this. You have to dig around to find hope but if hope was easy, everyone would have it.
Q. What do you draw upon from your refugee work?
A. I worked for Catholic Relief Services for about five years before I came to Spokane. I was all over the world. You see developing-world poverty, and in-your-face human suffering. Seeing that puts a perspective on things. Even if there is another Great Depression and unemployment goes to 25 percent, we’re still better off than all the countries in the developing world.
Q. Is there a positive side to the change in relationship with money in our country?
A. The economy was overvalued for a long time. There’s a correction going on, and it will remind us of what things are really worth. When a stock can go from $100 a share to a $1 a share, that tells you how it can fluctuate. A human relationship doesn’t fluctuate. If you love someone, you love someone. If you want to help, you do. Our volunteerism has gone through the roof. When the chips are down, we think about what’s important.