Catholic Social Services’ leader reflects on accomplishments

After seven years, Lisa Aquino, chief executive officer of Catholic Social Services (CSS), is moving on. Her new position as CEO with Anchorage Neighborhood Health Center allows her to continue in the field that aligns with her passion: accessing public health care.
Throughout her tenure, Aquino oversaw an agency of the Archdiocese of Anchorage-Juneau which provides assistance to a wide variety of folks with diverse challenges and circumstances. From the homeless and vulnerable adults, to newly arrived and settled immigrants, Catholic Social Services has reached out to those most in need.  In her time there, Aquino worked with the community, churches, individuals and corporations, not just to assist in material needs, but to integrate and improve on how such services are provided.
“I felt such passion for the work we do and the people we serve,” Aquino said, looking back at her career with CSS. “I felt called.”  CSS is such a broad agency, she continued, “I was just learning.”
Best practices, through the evaluation of data, quickly became her work theme.
“Services are so crucial to individuals and families, people deserve quality services,” she said. They have fallen through the cracks, Aquino said; they  need a response deep enough to supply a safety net, but also a ladder out. The goal of best practices is to “transition adults and families to permanent stability.” Housing, stable income, and access to services are the primary focus of this approach.
“These systems are hard and frustrating,” Aquino said, especially for people who don’t have connections, whose social and emotional well-being is often barely developed or recognized. “We help them navigate the challenges of this city, this state. The agency needed to focus on these ladders out.” To do this CSS works with diverse providers and generates good data through connection with others, she added.
Aquino spoke of the work done through collaboration with the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness. “CSS has a responsibility as an advocate for social justice. We have to do this,” she said. Brother Francis Shelter and Clare House were the only homeless facilities with useful data to get the scope of the issue of homelessness in Anchorage. In ten years BFS saw a 30% increase in guests 65 years of age and older, and a 240% increase in shelter use. “We needed to change our services,” Aquino said.
In a difficult time they adjusted their staffing ratio and connections to behavioral, mental health, and addiction services. “I’m really proud that we have worked to make sure the homelessness issue is a municipality-wide issue. We worked really hard on that.”
Aquino said that state budget cuts impacted programs at both shelters. Other agencies like Gospel Rescue Mission and the Downtown Hope Center drew people and spread the responsibility for an increasingly complicated issue that required the cooperation of many more actors.
Through educating the community, talking with neighbors, and evaluating the work of 40 years, Aquino acknowledged, “We were learning, we made mistakes.
“We need to do better. People deserve dignity,” Aquino stated. Forging a relationship with the municipality was a first step in doing better.
Covid-19 made it clear that something additional needed to be done to be able to provide shelter for people and abide by safety guidelines.  Health department mandates for space between guests was not possible in Beans Café. “There was no space,” Aquino said.  CSS worked with Beans Café to help set up the structure of shelter at the Sullivan Arena. The earliest days of a pandemic seemed to be a catalyst for action on the homelessness issue.
“We went back to our mission,” Aquino said. The Sullivan Arena, which allowed physical spacing for guests, had accessibility issues for people in wheelchairs, with walkers, or even with canes. BFS is a low-barrier shelter. With lower numbers of guests, staff was better able to accommodate these folks, who are older, arrive with more chronic physical ailments, and often would be transitioning from the shelter into assisted living or nursing homes, Aquino added.
Keeping people safer meant transitioning BFS into a 24-hour shelter, something impossible to do with 240 people sleeping there overnight. Long lines would form outside the shelter and folks who couldn’t find a bed there took to setting up camps along the streets and in the wooded areas adjacent to the facility.
There was a silver lining to the challenges presented by Covid, and, Aquino said, “We would never go back to the other way.” More services became available with homeless folks having other places to go. BFS now has a healthy and safe environment limited to 72 people.
While the city and social service providers continue to grapple with this issue, bringing them together to tackle them was imperative, and the urgency of Covid mitigation accelerated a coordinated response. “It is very helpful that people are having this conversation, this opportunity. I am proud to have been a part of it,” Aquino said.
Moving forward with her career and life goals, Aquino said, “I have so much hope for the future. We have an incredible team poised for the next great step.” During her time there, CSS doubled its budget and has been thoughtful about adding employees and responsibly using the income received, much of it from private donors. “It is all about the people we serve,” she added.
With her new position at ANHC, Aquino is excited to help connect people with behavioral health services through Medicaid, so they may live healthier and happier lives. Her work at CSS sought to do this as well. Working with families to address generational poverty will be a continuing goal for CSS. “We focus on more than one person or provider. Children need to be part of any plan. We want to use trauma-informed approaches to pull people out of poverty.
“So much preventative work can be done,” Aquino added, work that extends to the arriving refugees from Afghanistan who are being helped by CSS Refugee and Immigration Services.
Reflecting on her final days with the agency, Aquino said, “This is sad for me in some ways,” But her heart and her desire to be more fully present for her children as they enter adolescence is calling her to make this change.
She is immensely grateful to the “incredible Board of Trustees whose search committee has posted my position,” she said. Prospective replacements can reach out to her, she added. “It is my secret hope it will be someone from Anchorage,” who understands something of the challenges of homelessness in Alaska’s largest city, and how the community has long partnered in the work of CSS.
“I have had such invaluable support in the parishes and the community,” she said.  Aquino hopes to someday soon visit every parish, to personally thank them for their support, and to encourage their continued involvement with the agency and with her successor.


'Catholic Social Services’ leader reflects on accomplishments'
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