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Catholic Charities keeps track of homeless with iSeries

The Twin Cities' chapter of Catholic Charities runs its IT department with a handful of iSeries servers that helps it feed the hungry and provide shelter for the homeless.

A five person IT staff with five iSeries [recently renamed System i] boxes help Catholic Charities in St. Paul and Minneapolis serve 1.1 million meals to the hungry each year and provide 1,000 beds per night for the homeless.

Catholic Charities' IT department supports a CommunityCard program, using Lotus running on an iSeries. The program helps identify and keep track of the thousands of homeless that Catholic Charities serves each year. Each time a homeless person steps through its doors, they either show their identification card or, if they haven't been there before, are issued one.

The program allows staff at Catholic Charities to keep track of who they're taking care of, what they're giving them and any other identifying information, such as name and medical conditions.

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Jim Storms, IT director at the St. Paul and Minneapolis chapter of Catholic Charities, said the nonprofit received donated software from Lotus and had help from IBM in writing some of the code for the ID card application.

"The value of the iSeries and our partnership with IBM has been a key to making this work," he said.

The program started eight years ago on one of the agency's PCs. When Storms joined Catholic Charities soon after, he realized it was a program worth spending money on. As a result, Catholic Charities was a finalist for Gartner's 2002 CIO Choice Award, and the project has also won partner awards from IBM and Lotus.

"What we were trying to do is connect the faces of the poor and help that process with technology," he said. "So we wrote it in a Lotus database and interface it through a data card process."

In the late 1990s, Catholic Charities was running one AS400 box. The nonprofit had a good relationship with IBM and its business partners and decided to grow through them.

Storms said that Microsoft would have been the other option, but after some research, it seemed like buying Windows servers would be cheaper up front but cost more to maintain over three to five years.

He added that the integration of IBM hardware and software, as well as its flexibility in dealing with in-house programs written in older programming languages, made it a good choice over Microsoft. The nonprofit still runs three Microsoft applications on xSeries servers that are connected to the System i boxes.

"If a company is really focused on saving money, the iSeries seemed to really be a great solution for a company that's not only lean and mean, but ridiculously lean and mean," Storms said.

Among dozens of other stories, the ID program helped a Vietnam veteran get a proper burial, according to Storms.

The vet was a homeless man who was found dead under a bridge and had no identification on him other than the card from the Catholic Charities program. Because of that card, police and Catholic Charities discovered that the man had flown fighter jets during the Vietnam War but had suffered from progressive mental illness upon coming home and eventually became homeless. Authorities were able to track down his family in Ohio, and instead of the man being buried and forgotten without a name, he was given a proper military funeral.

"This was a person who was lost in poverty and mental illness, and because of the program, he was able to be reunited (with his family), even though it was in death," Storms said.

Let us know what you think about the story; e-mail: Mark Fontecchio, News Writer

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