LeadingAge Magazine · May-June 2017 • Volume 07 • Number 03

Faith-Based Stewardship

May 16, 2017 | by Debra Wood, R.N.

Faith-based providers preserve their missions and religious heritage by serving low-income seniors. Here is a look at how a few of them put stewardship into action.

Established to serve low-income elders with few options, faith-based organizations have carried on their religious missions and traditions for decades, evolving and overcoming challenges, adversity and changing government programs.

Maintaining a “Pillar of Service” in the Wake of Destruction

While all organizations face challenges, few have experienced the wide-scale destruction that Christopher Homes, New Orleans, LA, suffered in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. For the past 12 years, the organization has been building back, mostly with funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, tax credits and refinancing properties.

“Our housing stock was severely damaged,” says Deacon Dennis F. Adams, executive director of Christopher Homes. “We’ve contracted for more than $130 million to rebuild our stock.”

Christopher Homes photo

Margaret Hill (right) with volunteer Leroy Joseph. Hill, a
resident at Christopher Homes’ Place DuBourg
community, was recently chosen to be the community’s
Mardi Gras queen. Photo courtesy of Christopher Homes.

At the end of May, Christopher Homes will open the final property that will bring it back up to the 2,400 units it had when Hurricane Katrina hit.

Christopher Homes got its start after another storm in 1965, when Hurricane Betsy hit the Gulf Coast.

“Both of those storms were the impetus for us to do some incredible construction in the New Orleans area,” Adams says.

The Archbishop of the New Orleans Roman Catholic Archdiocese in 1965, Philip Hannan, recognized the need for decent affordable housing, because so much had been destroyed. He founded Christopher Homes in 1966 and obtained Housing and Urban Development (HUD) funding to build the communities. Subsequently, the diocese, through Christopher Homes, managed as many as 5,000 affordable apartments, including its 2,400 owned units, which comprise its current housing stock.

“Archbishop Francis Schulte referred to Christopher Homes as one of the 4 pillars of service of the Catholic Church in New Orleans,” Adams recalls. “The Catholic Faith has a long tradition of social services. In the late 1800s, Pope Leo XIII and every pontiff since him called [for] the church to recognize its responsibility to social justice. That’s the basis of what we do at Christopher Homes.”

Hurricane Katrina may have destroyed many of the properties, but not Christopher Homes’ resolve to provide deeply subsidized affordable housing to vulnerable members of the community, including low-income seniors.

“Katrina was an incredible event of the evacuation of this city,” Adams said. “It spread our residents across the country.”

Not only did Christopher Homes have to undertake a massive construction initiative, it also had to find its former residents who had spread to both coasts. LeadingAge and HUD helped locate people.

“We began bringing them back as we could with the units we did have available,” Adams recalls. “One of the great concerns of the elderly was the desire to be back in New Orleans when their time came to meet their maker. We heard that many times. I feel we were able to help many of those residents and other elderly residents of the city who wanted to come back.”

That sometimes meant relocating to a different area of the city. Christopher Homes had to rebuild some of its housing stock in other areas within the New Orleans metro area where the Catholic Church owned land. Its inactive HUD Section 8 contracts helped the organization secure refinancing to rebuild. However, when rehabilitating an existing building, Christopher Homes gave first preference as it reopened to the people who had lived in that building before the storm.

The current Archbishop, Gregory Aymond, listens to the needs of residents of New Orleans. One request he heard from a Christopher Homes resident was to “teach us to die well.” That has led to a new emphasis on pastoral care at all properties. A chaplain serves each building to meet with residents and help prepare them for moving on from this life to the next and dealing with the daily challenges of life.

“It’s a ministry of presence to our residents,” Adams explains. “We are listening to them. It is work that I feel blessed to be a part of, to serve our staff, allowing them to serve our residents.”

Preservation Plus New Outreach

Christian Church Homes in Oakland, CA, was founded in 1961 with a mission of providing housing for low-income widows. The original faith-based inspiration came from a Disciples of Christ pastor who personally housed widows. Christian Church Homes currently operates 57 communities in 7 states, housing 5,000 low-income seniors.

CCH photo
Christian Church Homes operates 57 communities in 7 states, housing
5,000 low-income seniors. Pictured: Alice Axel, social service
coordinator (left) and a resident.

Don Stump, president and CEO, is the second generation of his family to lead the organization.

“The Disciples of Christ has a huge history of mission work, with direct hands-on caring for people,” Stump explains. “A major function of Christian Church Homes is housing low-income elders.”

In its earliest days, Christian Church Home relied on HUD, but it now has turned to other sources of money, after HUD stopped funding additional such programs in 2011. The federal government’s current tax-credit program, offered through the Internal Revenue Service, does not serve as poor a clientele as the Section 202 program. Current residents pay an average of $300 per month; future residents in a tax-credit facility will pay considerably higher.

“There is no federal housing program that supports the poorest of the poor,” Stump says.

Christian Church Homes still operates about 40 properties built with the HUD 202 program. In the 1980s, the organization started offering formal supportive services to help elders in its communities age in place. Over the years, it has refinanced and remodeled the early buildings to modernize them.

“Preservation, preservation, preservation, that’s good stewardship,” Stump explains. “That’s the current mantra, to preserve what we have.”

The organization is launching 2 new programs to serve homeless elders in a regular affordable housing community. The cities and states involved, San Francisco and Houston, have money, which Christian Church Homes has tapped, for programs to help the homeless get off the streets. The permanent supportive housing programs will offer a caseworker on-site to connect the formerly homeless residents with other services in the community.

“It’s a new addition to our mission to serve homeless,” Stump says.

Christian Church Homes’ newer construction has depended on tax credits. Stump calls it a big societal challenge as to how organizations will serve retiring baby boomers with no HUD financing for affordable housing. He sees opportunities for churches to partner with nonprofit developers to build affordable housing, perhaps providing land for new developments.

“It could be a faith-based success story,” Stump says. “The sponsoring churches frequently have a mission to serve low-income seniors.”

Opening Hearts and Doors to People Who Need Support

Jewish Community Housing for the Elderly in Brighton, MA, was founded in 1965, and continues to grow. It owns and operates 4 campuses with 1,200 apartments for extremely low-income elders.

JCHE photo
Jewish Community Housing for the Elderly houses 1,200 low-income
seniors on 4 campuses in the Boston area. Photo from Brighton, MA,
campus, courtesy of JCHE.

“We are an organization committed to the vision that every adult should have the opportunity to live a full life of connection and purpose in a dynamic, supportive environment,” says Amy Schectman, president and CEO. “We have a laser focus on affordability. Anything the market can take care of, we do not touch.”

Jewish Community Housing began to serve poor, older women who were left behind in less than desirable apartments when most people in a nearby neighborhood moved out. Real estate developers in the Jewish community with a philanthropic bent said, “No, we do not leave our old ladies behind.” They raised money and built Section 202 Housing and rescued everyone left behind.

As those people grew older and vacancies emerged, the organization opened its doors to older Jewish adults immigrating to the United States after being persecuted in Russia and other countries of the former Soviet Union, and people from China. Every department that deals with tenants has someone who speaks Russian and Chinese.

“We opened our hearts and doors to people who needed our support,” Schectman says.

While serving a diverse population of low-income elders, Jewish Community Housing closely adheres to Jewish values, including honoring thy father and mother, which the organization considers a collective responsibility; welcoming the stranger as you were once a stranger yourself; sharing across generations; and repairing the world and engaging in efforts to do so.

Jewish Community Housing raises about $1.7 million annually and manages the budget carefully to stretch the HUD money it receives. The organization also partners with other community organizations. For instance, it offered Central Boston Elder Services, which had case managers serving residents in its building, office space, a telephone, a computer, copies and coffee if it would consolidate the number of case managers working in the building from 40 to 5 or 6. The home services coordination agency did, and the deal has worked great for both organizations and has improved communications.

“It expands our ability to serve our population and costs little,” Schectman says.

Jewish Community Housing plans to build 2 new properties in the next year and double its portfolio in the next 10 years, and expand to serve low-income, aging adults with developmental disabilities. It has nearly 1,800 people on a waiting list for apartments.

The organization added a real estate department to help pull together packages to fund the construction of new buildings. The money comes from the city, state, federal government, private foundations and tax credits.

Schectman also works to overcome any stigma associated with moving into senior housing, since a societal pressure exists to age in place, at the home the older adult lived in for years, alone and isolated. She wants to make senior housing the first choice not the last, so older adults can build ties to get them through the tough times.

“People need each other and [are] so much better off being a part of community and sharing good, bad, helping,” Schectman says. “We see people thrive in this community setting.”

Debra Wood, R.N., is a writer who lives in Orlando, FL.