It is a time of hope. And few people need hope more than the poverty-stricken residents of Portsmouth, Ohio, located in Scioto County— the second poorest county in the state.
With a median household income of $28,840, Portsmouth bears the burden of a 37% poverty rate. Nestled in green hills, this rural town across the Ohio River from Kentucky has historic charm and a quaint beauty, but also rampant drug use, severe economic decline, and (amidst the ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic) a near-vacuum of economic opportunity. Here, there are massive, persistent struggles for residents and families coping with the complex challenges of poverty.
Thankfully, hope can take many forms. One of them is in the form of a building and the caring people inside.
For many residents in Scioto County, that building— that beacon of hope— is the St. Francis Center, a one-stop community center, providing families in need access to a wide variety of services from Catholic Social Services and our key partners. It is the place where the people of Portsmouth and surrounding communities can turn in their darkest hours for food, financial emergency assistance, clothing, household items, and intervention classes and support for struggles with substance abuse and addiction. It is a place that can provide both immediate assistance in times of crisis and a foundation for lasting stability that helps strengthen families for the long term.
Breaking Ground on a Better Center
With the growing demand for our services over recent years (especially as the COVID-19 crisis developed), it was becoming increasingly clear to CSS that the St. Francis Center building needed improvement. Originally a Sisters of Poor Clare’s monastery, the building presented some real logistical limitations to our mission-driven work and was no longer ideal— or even adequate— for our ability to fully serve the impoverished community that needed us.
This is why we knew that the time for an upgrade and expansion of the St. Francis Center had clearly come. While the vision for growth and some resulting upgrades were already in the works, the pandemic served as a catalyst to put the gears in full motion, and we proudly broke ground on a building renovation on August 3, 2020!
With our goal to make the center more functional, safe, comfortable, and client-friendly, these timely improvements included:
- Installing a new roof;
- Upgrading our electricity and HVAC systems;
- Strengthening the security infrastructure of the entire facility;
- Expanding the parking lot to better accommodate the volume of traffic and improve traffic flow;
- Weatherizing and expanding the food pantry (previously housed in a two-car garage space with insufficient air conditioning) in order to transition to a choice pantry, where clients have better options for self-determination;
- Moving, increasing the size of, and redesigning our resale thrift store: Clare’s Closet. The store provides a huge benefit for our clients through clothing and household items. It used to be in the basement, accessible only by stairs, which made it difficult for many clients to enter and to carry their items to their car in carts. They were often reliant on our volunteers to help. Now, our clients can better choose, carry, and transport their own items themselves and with dignity;
- Removing walls to create more open space, now providing plenty of room for the cleaning, sorting, and storage of the thrift store’s and the food pantry’s donations. No longer will volunteers have to stand outside in extreme cold or heat while sorting items and bagging food!
Altogether, these renovations vastly improve the quality of services we can provide for our clients. The buildout was conceived knowing that better use of space within the center would likely allow our staff to help an estimated 20% more people in the food pantry and increase the number of households served in the thrift store by 30%. For both the center and its surrounding community, this is a huge step forward— a milestone that will ultimately help put more clients on the road to self-sufficiency and stability.
A Moment for Compassion
The St. Francis Center upgrades could not have come at a better time. In addition to Portsmouth’s ongoing struggles with a sluggish economy and an opioid epidemic, the pandemic brought new challenges, making life for our Portsmouth clients that much harder. Many local businesses closed, causing significant job loss, so much so that, in 2020, unemployment in the area had increased to 15%–almost double what it was pre-pandemic. With schools closed, many children who had previously relied on school-provided meals during the day were forced to go without. Hunger and the need for emergency assistance exploded in 2020.
These factors resulted in the center’s seeing an increase in the number of families visiting and, subsequently, a large increase in the need for food. In the first three months of 2020 alone, the center served 4,542 people, compared to 2,892 people in the same period of 2019. Across the entirety of 2020, the center served 122,949 meals to 14,207 families. This is why our nearly finished build-out is so acutely critical and timely at this challenging moment— a moment that demands the utmost compassion for those who are impoverished and in pain.
The St. Francis Center renovations are vital to CSS’s ability to help empower those in need across Scioto County. We are incredibly excited at what the future holds as we advance our commitment to providing sustenance, care, and hope for this deeply economically depressed rural community. While clearly struggling, the people of Portsmouth do have the heart for a brighter future, and the St. Francis Center is here to help make it a reality— client by client, meal by meal, and day by hopeful day.