As the executive director of the West Side Catholic Center, which has provided critical services to Clevelanders experiencing homelessness since 1977, Litten oversees a team that serves hot meals, provides shelter to families, women and veterans, and offers babysitting and workforce training to more than 8,000 people each year.
But the global pandemic created a multitude of problems for a population already at risk.
“I would argue a lot of who we’re serving were hurting before, so it just adds another layer,” says Litten, who’s worked in the nonprofit world for nearly 20 years and is also a Lakewood city councilman.
The center had to quickly switch gears to protect everyone’s health. Meals were served to-go instead of on-site, reusable masks were distributed and two portable restrooms and a sanitation station were added outside the center for the homeless to use since many places they would usually access for basic hygiene were closed.
As the school year approached, Litten knew something had to be done for the families and children they already serve and the many more who would need help in the coming months. The 10-week Family, Food and Fun Summer Program, which supports family well-being through food donations, activities, school enrollment help and more, was set to expire Aug. 7.
Although the program was already at capacity, feeding 66 Cleveland families throughout the summer, the pandemic had pushed families into an even worse situation with many kids participating in remote learning during the fall semester and unable to access the in-school lunches they usually depended on.
“Our family engagement program manager, Jeanette Mazzola, came into my office and said, ‘I’d really like to be able to continue this program,’” says Litten, who has been director for three years. “That was the easiest ‘yes’ in my life. I had no idea how we were going to pay for it, but we were going to make it happen.”
It was renamed the Children Food Distribution Program and extended for an additional 10 weeks with possibility for further extension, offering upwards of 40 families and 120 children a grocery bag of food each week.
With winter’s cold temps on the way and no clear end to the pandemic in sight, the center is preparing to pivot yet again.
Options for safe indoor meals are being explored: everything from tents with heaters to a rotating schedule allowing 15-20 people inside at a time with priority given to those living on the streets. And Litten will do anything he can to make it happen.
“Everyone deserves to be loved, to have respect and hope about their future, and we make it our business to provide those things,” he says. “Now more than ever I think those things are needed.”
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in the cle
7:00 AM EST
October 28, 2020