Catholic Charities is well known for extensive high quality services that touch almost every human need. Another part of mission is probably less known: partnering to build a just and compassionate society through economic and community development.
Today we focused on this lesser known part of our mission. We partnered to raise our awareness and show solidarity to one of the most troubled barrios of San Juan, La Perla. Its reputation for drugs, poverty, violence and lack of opportunity is infamous. A Franciscan priest, decades ago, began to organize to address these issues. Catholic Charities took the lead in organizing a moving walking tour of this historic barrio with approximately 50 SOMOS participants led by a current community organizer Angel Marcano and a volunteer, former NYC Housing Commissioner Bill Alicea.
This neighborhood has such strong emotional reverberations for many Puerto Ricans. It was the birthplace and home of NYS Assemblyman Jose Rivera who joined us on the tour. He pointed out his home and school. He showed us the part of the beach he swam in after school.
This is just a glimpse of our visit. I will probably write more in the future.
Currently, many positive changes can be seen in this barrio with a checkered history and bad reputation, natives and tourists alike were discouraged from visiting. We were told that within the past 3 years much of the drug trafficking has been cleaned up and a renewed sense of the community is emerging. But this positive story comes with threats.
The actual ownership of the land is in dispute. The US National Parks Service is claiming jurisdiction over properties held for five generation by families from the community. NPS sees abandoned buildings as targets for demolition and additional park land. The community sees the potential for new affordable housing and commercial space. A persistent slogan was told us: La Perla Defiende La Perla, (La Perla defends its Pearl).
This barrio is located outside the main old fortress walls of San Juan. This barrio of 700 residents it is nestled between the city’s walls and the ocean. Yes, imagine property situated like this and you can also imagine multi-million dollar luxury homes overlooking a majestic sea with its rolling tides. This is not the future vision of La Perla’s community and its leaders. They see renovated houses – affordable to community members and small entrepreneurial businesses. They are striving to get the attention of those needed to make this vision a reality – the National Parks Service, HUD & banks.
To achieve its goals community leaders requested the assistance of its visitors in various initiatives; from writing letters to the NPS Director and Solicitor General to cease and decease demolition of homes and work together to develop a memorandum of understanding; to providing technical and legal assistance to create a HUD- Community Housing Development Organization with focus on clearing land title concerns to make homes in La Perla accessible to the FHA 203k loan rehabilitation programs; create microenterprises by accessing funds to match 30K of funds available for tourism, artisans training and to support “La Finca Escuela” (The Farming School) for the residents of the community; and develop linkages, resources and funding to establish a feasibility study, work plan and budget for several key programs. I was also asked to be part of the La Perla Community Advisory Board.
While Catholic Charities is most often thought of as providing a broad range of services to children, families, immigrants, the physical and emotionally challenged, the hungry and the homeless, there is another additional aspect to the work of Catholic Charities which seeks to deal with the causes of those problems – both individually and structurally. We have worked with community organizations in various neighborhoods to improve their communities – Youth Ministries in the Soundview section of the Bronx, The Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, groups in Portchester and Yonkers and Manhattan’s Lower East Side. We have worked to ensure that families struggling with a family member with mental illness can have the treatment they need covered by insurance.
On the compassion side today, Talia Lockspeiser, Associate Executive Director of Catholic Charities, delivered an in-service training on case management to the staff of Caritas Puerto Rico at the invitation of its Director Fr. Enrique Camacho. Talia’s expertise in this area is highly regarded as she has been instrumental in building the quality and capacity of Catholic Charities of New York’s case management work. Calling what Catholic Charities’ does “case management” is probably misleading and a misnomer: we don’t deal with cases; we deal with people. We don’t manage people in need; we help and strive to empower them for a better future. Treating each individual or family in need with respect and dignity involves three simple-to-say-not so-simple-to-do elements: assessing their genuine needs; developing a plan to address these needs, and supporting and advocating with the family to carry out the plan.