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Two fronts in the war on poverty

President Bush has pushed for increased funding for faith-based groups while proposing deep cuts for many traditional anti-poverty programs.
Jacquelyn D. Cornish, director of the Druid Heights Community Development Corp. in West Baltimore, Md., says that without federal aid, her group would have to stop much of its work.
Jacquelyn D. Cornish, director of the Druid Heights Community Development Corp. in West Baltimore, Md., says that without federal aid, her group would have to stop much of its work.Dudley M. Brooks / The Washington Post
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Jacquelyn D. Cornish keeps several postcards on her desk at the Druid Heights Community Development Corp., which has marshaled millions in government money in a decades-long effort to renovate houses and rebuild a proud community ravaged by drug addiction, crime and poverty. The cards are from agents looking to buy homes, a small but promising sign that the organization's work is making a difference in this tough corner of west Baltimore.

Just a mile away at Sacred Zion Full Gospel Baptist Church, federal money is spent on, as President Bush might say, changing hearts. Here, the drug-addicted and the HIV-infected come in for quiet counseling sessions in a corner of the fluorescent-lighted sanctuary, or to let counselors know they have established some shred of normalcy in their chaotic lives by reconnecting with family, finding an apartment or joining a church.

Both Sacred Zion and the Druid Heights corporation are engaged in the type of "social entrepreneurship" encouraged by Bush, who says both faith-based and secular groups play a vital role in the difficult task of bringing relief to the distressed and impoverished. But the president's budget proposals say something else when it comes to the nation's fight against poverty.

Bush has pushed for increased funding for faith-based groups while proposing deep cuts for many traditional anti-poverty programs. The result is that many small church- and community-based social service programs are slowly assuming the lead role in the war on poverty once held by long-established community development organizations. Administration officials say that faith-based groups are often less expensive and more effective in helping the needy, a contention that traditional service providers challenge.

"By any account, the administration's initiative has made it easier for a broader range of faith-based programs to apply for federal funds, and we appreciate that," said Douglas Rice, director of housing and community development policy for Catholic Charities USA, whose local affiliates have benefited from the shift. "But if you don't substantially increase the resources that are available, this is going to increase the competition for available funds."

Bush's 2006 budget proposed slashing public housing subsidies, food stamps, energy assistance, community development, social services and community services block grants -- programs that for decades have constituted the federal anti-poverty fight. While congressional budget makers have promised to restore some of the funding, they also have agreed to the president's tax cuts and overall spending targets, meaning there will be stiff competition for a shrinking pot of money.

At the same time, Bush's budget proposal for next year contemplates adding $385 million in new faith-based programs to this year's eventual total. The federal government awarded more than $2 billion in such grants in 2004 -- nearly double the amount awarded in 2003. Funding under the president's faith- and community-based initiative has gone up despite Congress's refusal to enact legislation that would allow faith-based groups to discriminate by religion when hiring staff, something Bush says should be allowed as long as they offer their services to people of all faiths and do not use federal money to proselytize.

‘Changes your heart’
"That doesn't make any sense, to tell a faith-based provider that they cannot practice the religion that inspires them in the work of compassion," said Bush, a Methodist who credits his religious faith for helping him stop drinking and handle the demands of his job. "There's all kinds of ways to quit drinking," he added in remarks to a March conference of faith-based social service providers, "but one of the most effective ways to quit drinking is for a person to make a choice to go to a place that changes your heart."

Here in Baltimore, a city notable for its unpretentious charm but also its deep social problems, the federal shift away from traditional community development programs has generated widespread uncertainty. While the anti-poverty groups are confronted with an uncertain future, church-based organizations that often provide similar services but often have less experience are flourishing.

"It is almost as if we're being replaced," said Cornish, who started out with the organization as a volunteer when it was formed 31 years ago. She became director in 1989. "Potential cuts or talk of it wakes up everyone. It takes you off course. And it leaves you wondering, 'Why?' "

It certainly is not because Druid Heights does not need the help. In another era, the community was home to Baltimore's black elite. Thurgood Marshall, the first black Supreme Court justice, grew up nearby, as did Clarence M. Mitchell Jr., the legendary NAACP lobbyist, and his brother, Parren J. Mitchell, the first African American elected to Congress from Maryland. But the neighborhood has fallen on hard times. Along some of its narrow "alley streets," drug users line up to buy their hits as if heroin and cocaine were legal. Some liquor stores open at 6 a.m., and the addicted queue up there, too.

At the beginning of the month, haphazard piles of furniture dot the curbs, evidence of an eviction rate that is 50 percent higher than the citywide average, even though the median housing price -- which included many shells and vacant lots -- was $21,000 in 2004, according to a city-run database.

Amid the problems, there are flickering signs of hope, many of which are being fanned by the community development corporation. The organization runs a transition program for newly released inmates, financial literacy programs for first-time home buyers, an after-school homework program, a program to foster understanding between black residents and Korean merchants, and even a Boy Scout troop. It also rents some of its space to a day-care center.

But its stock in trade is using government money to leverage other financing to renovate buildings for low- and moderate-income housing. Recently, the corporation bought an entire block of run-down alley homes, demolished them and built more than 50 townhouses with garages. They sold for $37,000 to $57,000, although the construction cost more than double that. "It is a short-term loss, but a long-term investment," Cornish said.

Funds in jeopardy
For years, those kinds of projects were not enough to hold back the tide of decline. But with housing prices spiraling across the region and crime slowly headed down in Druid Heights, there are signs of interest in the community. Recently, a two-family home in the neighborhood sold for $212,000 -- a once unheard-of sum.

Just as things are looking up, the federal money that is the lifeblood of the development corporation's work is in jeopardy. This year, $278,000 -- close to half of its already shrinking budget -- came from the imperiled community block grant program. Bush administration officials have said they targeted for cuts programs deemed ineffective. With Republicans controlling Congress and the White House, it also does not help that in many urban areas, community development corporations such as Druid Heights are identified with Democratic politics. Cornish is a former member of the Maryland Democratic State Central Committee. But she said her political affiliation is irrelevant to her work.

All she knows that is without federal money, the corporation would have to lay off some of its 10 staff members and stop much of its work. "You tell me," she said, "what is their measuring stick for effectiveness?"

Not far from Druid Heights, in a woebegone commercial strip, Sacred Zion does what it can to defeat some of the demons set loose by the city's enormous drug problem. An estimated 40,000 Baltimoreans -- nearly one in 15 residents -- are drug addicts, and the Rev. Bertha Greene has seen the fallout firsthand. Her son, Phillip L. Solomon, who was gay and a heroin addict, found out he was HIV-positive in 1989. He died in 2000 at age 40, but not before he had become a minister and Greene started her church, carving out a niche working with those with HIV or at high risk of getting the disease.

"I got to know some of my son's friends, and I became a person they could call on," Greene said. "They helped me realize that there are some great needs going unaddressed by the body of Christ." That insight led Greene to start Project ARISE -- Abstinence, Remembering, Instilling Pride, Self-worth and Education -- in 1999.

The program has received a big boost with the expansion of federal faith-based funding. This year, its budget includes a $249,000 federal grant, up from $105,00 last year. Outreach workers scour the streets to tell drug users about the project's HIV testing program and its counseling services that connect addicts with transitional housing, needle exchange and other resources. The program also teaches clients about safe sex, which leaves Greene conflicted because it requires her to sanction behavior she preaches against from the pulpit.

"Being a faith-based organization, it was an awkward place for us to be. We believe in abstinence," she said, explaining that the program has to meet clients "where they are."

‘Planted a seed with them’
Still, religious faith comes into play at Project ARISE. Staff members do not hesitate to pray for clients who request it. "I will say to my clients if they are feeling despair, 'God loves you, God made you special,' " said Edna Reynolds, the program's director.

Reynolds said she is hard pressed to say just how effective the program is. "I don't often get to see their success," she said of the clients. "But I feel we have to be here for them. When they leave here, I have to feel that we planted a seed with them."

The clients, who are saddled with AIDS, drug addiction, and their accompanying guilt and shame, describe the program as a godsend. Wanda A. Floyd, 38, fell victim to heroin in her early twenties. Her smooth, dark skin and straight, white teeth are still striking, despite the years of drug abuse and a decade of living with HIV.

She first stumbled into Sacred Zion with her husband more than a year ago in search of food. Since then, her husband has been murdered, leaving her alone to cope with the sad reality of her life: four children, HIV, no job and no friends outside the drug world. Now, she is looking to Sacred Zion for a residential drug treatment program.

"I only come here when I really, really need the assistance," she said. "They've been there for me spiritually. They are always telling me God loves me."