By Kathy Ficcadenti

By Kathy Ficcadenti

At Catholic Charities, we focus on helping our clients with their basic needs first, so they have the means to focus on more complex developments.

Click here to read the entire August 2020 newsletter

I was recently reminded of a video that was circulating a few years ago about the Pocatello, Idaho Zoo.

In the video, zoo officials explained they’d seen strange behavior exhibited by an elk near his water trough. Officials watched the elk walk in circles around his trough, seemingly trying to figure something out. Eventually, and much to the zoo officials’ surprise, the elk found a way to pull a drowning marmot out from his water trough.

Zoo officials were even more surprised when the elk continued to nudge the marmot with its hoof trying to revive it. After a few moments, the marmot came back to life and scurried off. The officials acknowledged that this was unusual behavior for a wild animal and credited the behavior to the elk’s lifestyle at the zoo, an environment where all his needs were met.

“Once their basic needs are met you start seeing a little more elaborate behavior,” said Zoo Educator Kate O’Conner. “They are engaging their brains in different ways than they would have in survival but is now more complicated and advanced.”

Just like other mammals, humans operate in a similar survival pattern. Our brains slip into survival mode as a means to attain our basic needs like food, shelter, and safety. This survival-state is often accompanied by extreme stress, disrupted sleep, and risky behaviors. Living in extreme situations, like poverty, can cause some people make irrational decisions to achieve their needs.

Those of us who work with homeless and marginalized populations are accustomed to working with people in survival mode. It is extremely challenging to try to engage someone in conversations about substance abuse and mental health when their biggest focal point is finding their next meal.


  At Catholic Charities of Kansas City-St. Joseph, we focus on helping our clients with their most basic needs first, so they have the means to focus on more complex developments. Things like problem-solving, planning, and forward-thinking are all behaviors that can take place only once the brain is relieved of stress. In many ways, we help free up our clients and empower them to creatively and strategically make decisions regarding their current situation and future goals.

The Community Housing program is fortunate to have grants that operate under the Housing First Model. This model is not used by every agency but is preferred by Catholic Charities as it allows for the high-need client to be housed first, whereafter they can focus on any underlying needs, such as mental health disorders, substance abuse, and unresolved trauma. Under this model, people who would otherwise be overlooked have a tremendous opportunity to lower their stress and start taking transformative steps to health and success.

When clients come through our doors, we enroll them in our program, find adequate housing, and walk with them as they find their way toward stability through intensive case management.

For more information on our Community Housing, contact Kathy Ficcadenti at


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