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Special Report

‘Violent system’ pushes parish into housing

By Pamela Schaeffer

Here’s how Catholics at a parish in Houston arranged for a not-for-profit group to buy a sprawling 458-unit, low-rise apartment complex who then developed social programs for low-income people who moved in.

After Christ the Good Shepherd got its social ministry program up and running, social ministers kept hearing the same complaint. People were being evicted from their homes.

“ ‘Eviction, eviction, eviction,’ that’s all we heard,” said Kathy Doran, former director of the parish’s social ministry program. “A person in uniform from the constable’s office would show up at the door, eviction notice in hand.”

Parents got upset, kids were scared.

“It was a violent system,” she said. Then people had to go to the constable’s office and find out they now owed not only back rent, but also another $60 for the constable’s visit. After that, they could visit another county office and get $60 in assistance. If the eviction notice had not been served, no assistance was forthcoming.

“It didn’t take long to figure out the county was just moving around rather than helping the poor,” Doran said.

First, social ministers went to talk to county officials, adopting their usual, straightforward attitude. As Doran describes the approach: “We’re here with open hearts and open hands because the gospel compels us to be here. We aren’t here to criticize. We’re here to find out how we can work together to help the people you are supposed to serve.”

ÏThey were able to persuade county officials to accept another form of proof of eviction -- possibly a landlord’s notice Ñ so that the family could get the $60 assistance without having to pay the constable.

But Doran and her team, compelled by the gospel, wanted more. Their suburban area was short on low-income housing. All the evictions were proof.

“I got a call late one night,” Doran said, saying that an apartment complex about four miles from our church was going up for sale. It’s a huge complex, one that could house a lot of people. But it had deteriorated a lot.” The complex is not a high-rise, but clusters of frame buildings that sprawl over many acres.

Doran went immediately to talk to her pastor, Msgr. Bill Robertson. His response: “Are you nuts?”

“The last thing I wanted to do was get into the leasing business,” Robertson told NCR.

Doran told Robertson she didn’t see a lot of choice. “I hear the call in the community,” she recalled telling him. Then she got others involved -- other community leaders, people from other churches, and a new organization was born: The Interfaith Housing Organization. In part because of the community support social ministers had stirred up, the group qualified for a government assistance program. It bought the complex and renovated the buildings. They are filled, crime has dropped dramatically at the complex and rent money covers the monthly mortgage.

The housing group also got funds for the community center, and another group, Community Friends, was formed to provide programs -- tutoring, homework help, computer instruction, English as a second language, summer activities, music classes and sports, to name a few. One of Christ the Good Shepherd’s social ministers, Rosette Dawson, serves as the parish’s liaison to the program.

“It all started with the moans and groans of the people,” Doran said. “They come and find us. It’s not like we get up and say, ‘What system can we go out and disrupt today?’ ”

“What we want to stress is the way we’ve done it -- and God, we’ve made every mistake in the book,” she said.

“We always go back to the basics. We extend hospitality to people who come through our doors because we know God has sent them. We value their story. Our stories are sacred. For some people, their stories are all they have left.”

As for the mistakes, Doran said, she encourages social ministers to avoid dwelling on them.

“I just tell people, ‘We aren’t called to be successful. Only faithful,’ ” she said.

National Catholic Reporter, August 11, 2000