Summer at St. Ambrose: Sustaining Community Connections

For a few days during the week, I work at St. Ambrose. In the morning and evening as I walk to and from the revitalized row houses that are St. Ambrose, I am most often greeted by someone who is going to work, returning home, or unwinding on their front porch. This exchange brings to mind an image of affability that seems to be a remnant of my parents’ generation.

I am always surprised when I talk to my peers, who should feel that life is at its peak, that they truly feel lonely and disconnected. It is the irony of my generation, that with more means of communication than any previous generation, we are lacking an intrinsic sense of connection. As I simultaneously visualize these two generational images – neighbors greeting one another from their porches, verses individuals posting updates of their locations and activities on the internet – it seems clear that the significance of verbal communication and face-to-face connection is eroding. With this erosion of face-to-face interaction and connection is a loss of community.

During the past couple of weeks, I attended several St. Ambrose events. One weekend, I went to St. Ambrose’s picnic at Herring Run Park, which celebrated the revitalization of 137 homes in the Belair-Edison neighborhood. St. Ambrose homeowners and community members in the Belair-Edison area, as well as St. Ambrose staff were able to eat, dance, and socialize. Last week, I joined numerous community development organizations in saying goodbye to the Baltimore Neighborhood Collaborative (BNC), and reflecting on the work the organization completed in revitalizing and recreating neighborhoods to be safe, livable, cared for, and attractive.

These events are significant because they exemplify the building of community. The idea of community is a feeling of fellowship with others as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals. I am convinced that fellowship is a product of personal interaction, and that these celebrations of accomplishments encourage fellowship by recognizing the fulfillment of shared goals.

The St. Ambrose Legal Department is partnering with Community Law In Action (CLIA), an organization that works with youth to build them into leaders who will help transform their own communities. St. Ambrose attorneys are participating in the Corporate Mentoring program of CLIA. In this program, high school juniors and seniors are involved in many activities, one of which involves site visits to a Baltimore office, once a month. During these Mentor Days, students work on advocacy projects under the supervision of an attorney, participate in conversations with speakers about college, careers, and the legal profession, have mentoring sessions to work on SATs and college applications, and visit Annapolis.

In partnering with CLIA, St. Ambrose is continuing its mission of community development by engaging with a generation of young community members. The attorneys and students interact in a space that reconciles the goals and attitudes of both an older and younger generation. Gaining experience, attending college, and participating in community advocacy is part of individual and community development in the present, but CLIA is also involved in preserving the importance of face-to-face communication, interaction, and connection.

Phillip Westry, an attorney at St. Ambrose and a past director of the CLIA Youth Connection Program, describes the significance of mentoring as, “filling in a gap”. Phillip explains that students are able to gain the information and experience needed to more firmly establish their own educational and career goals. The personal connection and interaction that is also a part of mentoring, founds a base of support, encouragement, and connection, allowing young people to explore with confidence. As CLIA exemplifies, connection and community need not erode with every passing generation, if today’s community leaders and builders continue to include an ideal of affability within and among generations and people.

Summer at St. Ambrose: My Introduction into St. Ambrose

As a recent graduate of the University of Maryland, I am slowly becoming more cognizant of the vast range of responsibilities that accompany entrance into adulthood. The “college life” allowed for an extended period of youth, wherein everything from living and eating, to a gym membership was simply waiting for me: I did not have to figure life out, I simply signed up. So now, as I am preparing to attend law school, get an apartment, start repaying loans, find transportation for navigating the city, buy and prepare food for myself, etc., I realize that I cannot just sign up; I have to figure out exactly what I am signing up for. One fundamental need that adults must figure out and sign up for, is homeownership or renter-ship, as having a secure refuge is intrinsic to subsistence and well-being. I, in my extended youth, have taken for granted the reality that having a space that is a home, is the product of a complex process, and furthermore that the security a home is expected to provide may be confounded by the insecurity that the processes of home owning and renting are disposed to.

Over the summer, I am interning as a legal assistant at St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center, a community-based nonprofit organization that focuses on providing housing opportunities and assistance to people living in the surrounding neighborhoods. The legal department of St. Ambrose specializes in providing representation for foreclosure mediation as well as advice on legal issues that may be encountered throughout the process of owning a home. During my first few days here, as I have listened to the attorneys discuss cases, witnessed meetings between attorneys and clients, performed intake calls where clients describe their housing issues, and observed mediations in which an individual attempts to save her/his home, my vocabulary has been flooded with terms whose meanings and significance were previously foreign to me. My ignorance of terminology such as foreclosure, mortgage, equity, title, deed, affidavit, short sale, under-water, loss mitigation, modification, bankruptcy, and so on signaled my lack of understanding of what it means to own a home, retain that ownership, and what happens when that ownership is compromised or threatened.

My ignorance of home-owning, could be attributed to a number of explanations, including the naiveté of youth; whatever the cause, however, the basic question for myself and others who are similarly uninformed is, how do I become educated about home owning, retention, and loss, so that I can figure out what I am signing up for? From whom do I learn what the intricacies and jargon of home owning processes actually mean and require of me? Where do I learn what and when I am entitled to assistance or protections? Follow me on this blog series, “Summer at St. Ambrose”, as I participate in the culture of St. Ambrose, learning not only the answers to housing questions, but also the variety of ways in which St. Ambrose influences community strength by helping to form a foundation of informed and stable homeowners.

Sometimes Even Houses Are Beyond Fixing!

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Driving down Greenmount Avenue to the Baltimore Montessori School, a sweet little 4 year old exclaimed gleefully, “O goody, we get to see the broken houses.”

Hidden behind those broken houses are community groups who have kept the faith with their neighborhoods and private and nonprofit developers who have steadily resurrected those broken houses, one at a time.  Telesis, People’s Homesteading, St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center, Harbor Development, AHC, and individual homesteaders trying to hold on to their vision of a home for themselves and their loved ones.

Next year, St. Ambrose will hit the 500 mark – 500 vacant, foreclosed properties turned into lovely family homes,   The City has joined with us to make our efforts more visible by tackling the issue of 16,000 vacant properties that overwhelm the efforts of community partners like HUD, MICA, Hopkins and University of Baltimore.

Echoing a quote from an editorial in this morning’s Sun, “….That’s why last week’s announcement by the Rawlings-Blake administration of a major push forward in the Vacants to Value program is like a fresh breeze on a smoggy summer day. It demonstrates that when it comes to the issue of vacant homes, city leaders “get it.” They realize that the piecemeal, glacially slow approach of recent years, whereby a few hundred derelict houses are demolished annually, simply isn’t good enough for a city in a hurry to take its rightful place among the leaders in the nation’s ongoing urban renaissance.”  To read more – http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/opinion/editorial/bs-ed-vacant-houses-20130822,0,5392477.story.

To learn more about the City’s methodical plan to approach this problem, check out their website.  http://www.baltimorehousing.org/vacants_to_value.aspx

Your New Belair-Edison Neighbors

St. Ambrose recently hosted a happy hour for new homeowners and friends of the agency at the Station North Arts Cafe.  We were so grateful that Ms. Shanice Jones, who recently bought a St. Ambrose home, came and met other homeowners and some staff.  Here is her uplifting story as told by Belair-Neighborhoods, Inc.

“Keeping Up with the Joneses” – Written by Kadija Hart for Belair-Edison Neighborhood News Spring 2012

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Ms. Shanice Jones and her son, new neighbors in Belair-Edison.

When Ms. Jones came to Belair-Edison Neighborhoods, Inc. (BENI) First Time Home Buyer’s Workshop, back in June of 2011, she knew homeownership was in the very near future. After conducting her one-on-one counseling session with Roy Miller, BENI’s Homeownership Specialist, she knew that Belair-Edison was the neighborhood that she and her 15 year old son would soon call their home!  “Mr. Miller was very nice and knowledgeable”, said Jones. “He made me feel comfortable … and reassured me that this was the community for my family.”

With the help of her phenomenal Realtor, Yolanda Powell of Long & Foster, Jones closed on a newly renovated St. Ambrose home on Cliftmont Ave.  “The day I closed was move in day too,” said Jones. “My friends and family were waiting for me, outside, with the U-Haul Truck. We were so excited!”

Ms. Jones had been a renter for over 10 years and was somewhat afraid of taking the leap into homeownership. However, she wanted to provide a stable environment for her son. “I want to be an example for my son,” she said.  “Not only by teaching him responsibility, but should anything ever happen to me, I want to be able to make sure that his future is taken care of. This is an investment in his future.”

The path to homeownership was a bit of a long one, but that didn’t matter to Jones. She used the time to become fully educated about all of the closing cost assistance she was eligible for and received a large amount of grant assistance.

“I went on the Trolley Tour and spoke with Live Baltimore and Healthy Neighborhoods. I worked with St. Ambrose, and I even received an FHA grant,” said Jones. “I was determined.”

The oldest grandchild on her maternal side, she is the first grandchild to purchase a home.  Jones loves being the example for her family and friends. “I tell as many as people as possible about this program,” she said. “I want to help them accomplish their dreams like I have.”  What Ms. Jones loves the most about her block, is that it is filled with homeowners.  “I was tired of renting from unprofessional landlords who seemed all about just collecting rent and not making me feel like the house I lived in was mine,” said Jones.

“I know that many renters expect the landlords to keep up the property, but it’s important they do their part too,” she said. “Homeowners protect the value of their properties, and that’s what I like about my block.”  In addition to the block’s charm, and her homes new renovations, Jones loves her parking pad. “I can just park in the back and bring my groceries right in,” she said. “I don’t ever have to look for a parking space!”

Ms. Jones has big plans in store including finishing up her BA in Accounting at Sojourner-Douglass College, continuing to be a foster parent to young children, helping her son achieve academic success while in High School, and starting her own business!   “I am extremely motivated, always trying to accomplish things that will allow my son to have the best quality of life as possible,” Ms. Jones affirmed.  Welcome the Joneses to neighborhood!