Corporal Acts of Mercy: A place to call home

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Article Spirituality

The Christian influence has finally been felt at the highest levels of government. Policymakers and legislators have, at long last, studied the model that Christ presented during his life on earth as documented in the gospels. And they've come to a profound and cost-conscious conclusion: Christ didn't have a home address. It must be okay-or at least, Christianto be homeless, to rely on the charity of friends and relatives for a bed to sleep on, or to wander out to the desert (or under a bridge) and find a rock to use as a pillow.

In 100 years of Catholic social teaching, popes and bishops have interpreted things differently. While encyclicals and pastoral letters, including the U.S. bishops' recent "Building Economic Justice," refer only in passing, if at all, to housing specifically, they repeatedly emphasize the dignity of work and the individual worker; the threat that socialist and capitalist economic systems pose to that dignity; and the Christian imperative to design and maintain political and economic systems that serve basic human needs.

But the notion carries no cachet in Congress, as this year's federal housing appropriations bill makes abundantly clear. The creation of affordable housing is simply not on this nation's agenda, and there is no comprehensive plan to ensure that wages across the board will enable all working persons to pay market rents. As it is, wage erosion among the poorest working households continues to throw increasing numbers of working families into poverty, and current policies put the nation's most vulnerable populations at risk of homelessness.

While advocates scramble and head for state capitals to design stopgap plans for emergency services in the wake of welfare reform, many eyes are turning to churches. How will churches help ensure that poor families and children do not become homeless?

In 1996, the first draft (unpublished) of a national Catholic housing survey, demonstrates that the Catholic Church in this country is a major provider of nonprofit housing for poor, elderly, and disabled people. The survey, conducted by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University, also states that religious congregations, dioceses, parishes, and Catholic-sponsored community organizations have contributed to more than 650 housing development projects-providing an estimated 67,000 persons with homes. At a time when housing dilemmas threaten the well-being of families, Catholics are involved in innovative programs to provide places where families can live happily and hopefully.

Ground breaking moves

When Hurricane Andrew pounded its way across the Louisiana bayou in 1992, no nonprofit organization existed to address housing needs in the area, says Paul James, executive director of Catholic Housing Services in Houma, Louisiana. No banks in the area had programs to finance low- or moderate-income housing in the region; financial transactions were traditionally carried out in the region with money orders at the local post office or at a finance company, where for interest rates up to 36 percent "they give you money real fast." Budgeting, saving, and homeownership were foreign concepts to many who grew up in the region when James began talking to banks about how to build housing. Eventually James became a matchmaker,bringing bankers and residents together to form enduring and mutually beneficial relationships.

James began by organizing his own self-help program. He familiarized himself with how banks underwrite affordable housing, the regulations that govern banking practice, and successful housing programs at other banks around the country. Moreover, he set up homeownership sessions where potential homeowners and bankers could meet-in most cases, for the first time-to discuss budgeting, saving, investing, and building equity in one's home. The bankers' presence helped dispel fears and intimidation that had influenced bayou residents for generations.

Today Catholic Housing Services' plan for 15 single-family homes in the region is off the drawing boards. Two houses were completed in November 1996, ground was broken for two more in December, and James is negotiating for land that will be bought with funds that local banks provided.

Initially everyone was uncomfortable with James' proposal-the banks, the Catholic Social Services board, the local church, as well as local people who were being asked to revamp their attitudes and behavior in relation to money.

Building credibility and partnerships is a long process, says James. But Catholic Housing Services has built a successful affordable housing program, banks gained new community partners, as well as customers, and residents not only became homeowners, "They have a foothold into a system they've been excluded from for years," says James.

Rehab with heart

Sadly neglected and abandoned, a brick structure in South Chicago that once had been home for eight families in a vibrant city neighborhood stood vacant for years-but no longer. Redeemed by Claretian Associates, which was established by Claretian Missionaries in 1990 to help create permanent solutions to community problems, the building now provides affordable housing for eight new families.

"The challenges [to complete such projects] are really huge," says Claretian Associates Executive Director Donna Drinan. Seven layers of financing were required to rehab the brick structure, which greatly taxed the capacity of the Claretian Associates' tiny staff. Nevertheless, says Drinan, "If it can make a difference in this neighborhood, you do it."

When the Claretians decided to tackle housing in the neighborhood where they'd opened the first mission for Hispanic Americans in 1924, they began with Villa Guadalupe, a $4 million, 53-unit, rental apartment building for senior citizens across the street from Our Lady of Guadalupe Church. The Claretians invested the first $500,000, and that investment leveraged another $6 million over five years, which resulted in showcase housing with services, programs, and activities for senior citizens. Villa Guadalupe became the point project in Claretian Associates' housing initiatives, which created a total of 73 housing units and brought the neighborhood to a critical turning point.

Thanks to the investment of religious communities of women and men, this South Chicago neighborhood is slowly losing its aura of abandonment. New and rehabilitated affordable housing no longer stands in isolation amid neglected properties; however, the financing that must accompany affordable housing initiatives becomes more grueling and competitive with each passing day. "The role of religious in this work is crucial," says Drinan. "And many congregations have the financial strength to ensure that many housing needs continue to be met.

"But," she adds, "religious orders aren't enough." More housing-related organizing, outreach in local parishes, and recognition by the church of existing housing initiatives is needed. "When people decide that they want to do this together, it will get done," says Drinan.

Gain a new lease on life

Twelve-year-old Tammie Brown vowed never to be like her parents. Unable to maintain a comfortable middle-class lifestyle for the family after he lost his steelmaking job, Brown's father turned to drug dealing. Her mother sank into depression and alcohol abuse. At school Brown tried to escape her family's problems. She immersed herself in studies and when Brown left for college, she intended to close the door on her past and on her family. But during her junior year, Brown was shocked to discover she was pregnant. "First of all, I couldn't believe this happened to me," she says. "I was terrified. I had a plan for my life, and a baby wasn't part of it."

Ashamedand afraid, Brown made her way to the Dorothy Day Apartments in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where the view from the wide-windowed, spacious front entrance was dominated by Corpus Christi Church across the street.

Completed in 1990, the Dorothy Day Apartments was a Corpus Christi parish-led initiative to transform an abandoned parish school into a first-of-its-kind solution for single parents who needed more than a place to live in order to put their lives together. Today on a city block that was once an eyesore, the 16-unit apartment building stands in a landscaped setting with an adjoining playground.

"It's kind of un-American," Brown says. "To live here, you have to agree to live by certain rules." Residents must be single parents with a child under the age of 5; the parent must be enrolled in an educational program; they must show documentation of grades and attendance at class; and they cannot have live-in adult companions. In addition, residents must participate in on-site classes that teach parenting, resume writing, and other life skills.

Residents are also held accountable. In exchange for commitment and accountability, residents get a key to a bright, spacious apartment whose market value in Pittsburgh is more than $600 a month. Child care, counseling, and pediatric care are accessible, and residents-all of whom receive Section 8 subsidies-pay 30 percent of their income, an average of $90 a month.

Brown and her son lived in a Dorothy Day apartment for two years while Brown completed her degree. After graduating and landing a job as a caseworker in family-life education, Brown married her son's father. "I had to know that if my son and I were on our own, I could make it," she says. "I had to prove that to myself."

When the Dorothy Day board recently conducted a job search for its on-site program director, Brown applied. "I wanted to give something back by helping women who were in the same position that I was then," she says. Now Brown sits on the other side of the desk, laying the rules out to the apartment's applicants. "It helps that I have a relationship with God that I didn't have before," she says. "I talk about making choices that show respect for yourself, choices that give your child an image of you that he can respect."

This article appered in the April 1997 magazine of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 62, Iss. 4, pg. 18, 4 pgs).