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Church Groups Supply New Housing for Poor


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When Geraldine Fowler walks through the glass doors of the Bishop Boardman Apartment building, she enters a tidy lobby without a word of graffiti in sight.

Her apartment is a slice of Americana - thick carpeting, lace curtains, and a cross-stitching on the refrigerator that reads, "Keep my kitchen clean, eat out." Even the courtyard behind the Bishop Boardman here in Brooklyn has been touched by a certain serenity. There, instead of the drug deals so common outside other public-housing units, residents work together to tend a flourishing garden. "There's a great spirit here," says Sister Mary Mercedes, the complex's director.

At a time when public housing is derided as a failed social experiment, this building and the thousands of other housing units run by religious groups across the country are the rare success stories. They have managed, housing officials say, to provide safe, attractive living conditions for low-income residents through their dedication to the projects they help build and the sense of community they create among those who live there.

"Churches are the strongest, most supportive foundations in communities," says former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros, who encouraged the growth of religious-run housing during his tenure. "There are a lot of communities where the only viable leadership is the church."

What separates religious-sponsored housing from most other public housing is its attention to the details in people's lives. Many religious-run housing units provide services such as help with Medicaid paperwork and the staging of job fairs. They can give individual attention to residents: Bishop Boardman staff members, for example, will often visit residents who are in the hospital. And church groups typically have ties to their communities that stretch back through generations.


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