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.

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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.

St. Ambrose Takes legal services into the community

Originally Posted in The Daily Record

Joe Surkiewicz
The legal program at St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center isn’t waiting for clients to find its midtown Baltimore office. Instead, the nonprofit is going into the community to solve civil legal problems before they escalate – and with a permanent, brick-and-mortar presence.

Earlier this month, St. Ambrose opened a walk0in clinic at 108 E. 25th St., where people with civil legal problems can get a free 30-minute consultation with a lawyer.

“You can’t sit in an office and wait for low-income people to find you,” said Jeanette Cole, St. Ambrose’s director of legal services. “They face too many hurdles, like transportation or child care. If you don’t get to them, the problems don’t get better. You must address the legal issues early on.”

Since its founding in 1968, St. Ambrose has helped more than 100,000 families with their housing needs, including counseling for first-time home buyers, a home sharing service, rental services, and a home redevelopment program that renovates vacant houses.

Foreclosure services and the legal program counsel people who can’t pay their mortgage and provide direct representation to people in default and facing foreclosure. Increasingly, the legal staff is engaging clients with legal problems that aren’t directly related to housing – but can ultimately lead to economic instability.

The key, Cole said, is getting to them early.

“What we’re seeing is that people get in denial, they get overwhelmed and deny there’s a problem,” she said. “If they knew there’s someone they can ask for help, it can prevent a problem form turning into a disaster.”

One example is payday loans.

“We try to get to them before it turns into a problem,” Cole said. “We try to firm up their financial stability so that their housing remains stable. We meet with them informally or we schedule appointments.”

The new clinic, which will formally open next month with Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake in attendance, is open Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

“I hired an administrative assistant and a community liaison who also works for Councilman Nick Mosby,” Cole said. “He goes to community meetings and is really good at speaking and getting the word out…He’s a live presence in the community.”
Now that the office is staffed and operating, the next step is to meet with churches and schools where St. Ambrose staff can make presentations.

“We go where the clients are,” Cole added. “Although we’re citywide, we’re focused on the neighborhood near our office to help people access legal services. We take it to the and help them with their problems. It’s to help families and the neighborhood.”

Many people who come to St. Ambrose for housing counseling also have legal problems that need to be addressed. “By assisting with whatever needs to be done, we get to them as soon as we can,” Cole said. “It ultimately helps children, families and the neighborhood.”

Schools are also a source of potential clients.

“We’re contacting counselors to see what issues they’re seeing with the children,” Cole said. “We hope to meet with parents before or after school. We’ve prepared lots of educational brochures and show them how to use the People’s Law Library and our online intake.”

With a legal staff of just three lawyers, St. Ambrose is limited in the amount of direct representation it can provide. “We can’t represent everyone,” Cole noted. “We try to identify real problems. We can do something to help them a lot of the time, and then offer education, referrals and advice.”

The legal program will continue its collaboration with the University of Maryland Carey School of Law in providing low-cost legal help to people in the community.

“We’ll continue to work with the JustAdvice program,” Cole said. “We schedule sessions twice a month at The Living Well, a storefront available for community meetings that we rent. Maryland Law students set it up. Sometimes we have 15 people with scheduled appointments.”

Law students are also the focus of new legal clerkships at St. Ambrose.

“It gives them an opportunity to work with clients and shows them the public service aspect of the profession, either so they can pursue a career or use the experience on their resume, Cole said. “It also helps the see the huge demand for pro bono.”

Joe Surkiewicz is director of communications at the Homeless Persons Representation Project in Baltimore. His email is jsurkiewicz@hprplaw.org

Homesharing: Connecting Compatible Roommates

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By Emma Jornlin

Homesharing is a great option for those who don’t want to live alone. Oftentimes individuals who come to St. Ambrose are looking for a roommate but, for various reasons, don’t want to live with family or close friends.

The benefits of Homesharing abound. On the Home Provider’s part, sharing your house can mean assistance with household expenses, receiving help with chores or, as a recent article in the Chicago Tribune mentioned, just having someone with whom to watch Dancing with the Stars!

On the Home Seeker’s part, moving in with a Home Provider in Baltimore City/County can mean obtaining affordable housing while having the opportunity to share in someone lifestyle or culture—even being welcomed into the family. One of our Home Providers introduces Home Seekers to her grandkids when they visit. Another invites her Homesharers upstairs for Friday night dinners.

For those who don’t like the idea of having to greet someone before they’ve had their coffee or navigating someone  shower schedule, private baths and entrances are available for a slightly higher price than the average $450-500/month.

Our goal at St. Ambrose is to match people based on personality and preferences so that our Home Owners find the right person to share their home and our Home Seekers feel genuinely welcome there.

Here is an overview of our process:

  1. Homeowners apply through our online application or request a mail-in form.
  2. Homeowners are interviewed in their home.
  3. Homeseekers are interviewed at St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center.
  4. Homesharing staff screen and check references of Home Providers and Home Seekers to make sure they have a clean criminal history, no current addictions, and that they have a good rental history.
  5. Our Homesharing Counselors discuss and refer possible Homesharers, based on asking rent, location, and other “non-negotiables,” as well as based on personality and likes/dislikes.
  6. Home Seekers visit the Home Provider’s’ homes until each party decides on a roommate they like.
  7. Our staff meets with the Homesharers to formalize the match.
  8. We check in on the match once a quarter for the first year and provide free mediation services if needed.

The Homesharing Department is reachable at: (410) 366-6180 or you can go to www.stambros.org

Home Matters™ Launch Is Today!

Today, in Washington, DC, National NeighborWorks® Association joined (NNA) with a coast-to-coast coalition to launch a unique national movement called Home Matters. Home Matters™ aims to build public support for the essential role that Home plays as the bedrock for thriving lives, families, and a stronger nation. As it expands, Home Matters™ will go beyond housing and illuminate the connections between stable housing and other important facets of American life such as:

  • Individual Success: Home recharges adults and children alike for the day ahead.
  • Education: Children in stable homes learn and achieve more in school.
  • Health: Healthy habits take root more easily in stable affordable homes.
  • Public Safety: Stable homes make communities safer.
  • A Strong Economy: By having a Home that is affordable, people of all income levels have more to spend and support the economy.

Participating in the two-day launch, today and tomorrow, are leaders of more than 150 local and regional housing and community development organizations from across the nation – many of them NNA members – as well as national entities including NNA, Citi Community Development and Wells Fargo. Members of the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives will join us this evening, and U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan will speak with the coalition tomorrow. Please visit the Home Matters™ website (www.HomeMattersAmerica.com), share your insights, tell your colleagues and friends about the movement, and connect to it through Facebook and Twitter. It’s time for the crucial roles that Home plays to be more broadly understood.

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!