Being charitable in one way and another

Have you ever seen “Jaws”? Cinematographically speaking, you really should. In this case, I hope you have because it will help me make a point. Bear with me.

I have just celebrated my one-year anniversary as president of Catholic Charities. During that year, and throughout the agency, we have been pressed by a nearly overwhelming sense of increased demand for our services, especially our emergency response, or “basic needs” services. This includes things like food, utility assistance, help with rent or mortgage payments, diapers and formula for babies, etc. -- what a lot of people would consider old-fashioned charity.

We ran some back-of-the-envelope calculations last winter, and found that basic needs demand had gone up anywhere from 12 to 25 percent, depending on the location. But we didn’t know for sure how big the demand was, and how much of it we couldn’t meet because we didn’t have the money or supplies. We decided it was time to find out. We created a quick tracking system, and at the beginning of the month started keeping a regular record of the number of people we have to turn away and what help they were seeking.

This is where “Jaws” comes in.

Part of what makes the movie so scary is that you don’t see the shark for the entire first half. You can only imagine how big and bad it must be. Eventually, three men go out on a boat to catch the shark. When Jaws finally appears, only Roy Scheider, playing Police Chief Martin Brody, sees him. This unbelievably huge beast comes out of the water, just long enough for you to understand how massive it really is. Scheider’s head snaps up, and with huge eyes and a gulp, he turns to the other two men and says quietly, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

In the first seven working days of September, with seven of 10 locations reporting, Catholic Charities had to turn away more than 900 requests for basic needs assistance. More than 200 of those requests were for help paying utility bills. Back rent and mortgage assistance ranked a close second, with food coming in third. Those three categories made up more than half of the requests that we turned away.

Catholic Charities also served a lot of people in that time. We gave food to 976 households, serving more than 2,400 people. We distributed nearly $11,000 in rent, mortgage and utility assistance. That touched 34 households, for nearly 100 people.

That’s 1,000 households served, and another 900+ turned away. In seven days. And that count is for the beginning of September. Imagine what November will look like. Or January. Or March.

Of all years, this is the year for charity. With food prices skyrocketing, and the cost of a 250-gallon oil tank predicted to top $1,000, people all over the Commonwealth will be in need. Former givers will become those seeking help in numbers we haven’t seen in a long time. Those of us who don’t need help, or even only need it some of the time, are going to have to respond charitably: A little money here. Food to a pantry there. An angel off the giving tree. Many, many of us are charitable in one way or another. We at Charities just got a look at the shark, though, and I believe this year everyone will have to be charitable, in one way and another, if the people knocking on our doors and calling our phones are going to make it.

The other day, one of our new trustees said, “Charity begins at home. Welcome home.” He’s right.

We’re gonna need a bigger boat.

Tiziana C. Dearing is the President of Catholic Charities in the Archdiocese of Boston.