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No More Poverty: What the Catholic Church is Doing
Text by Carol Ann Morrow, photos by Ken Touchton
New Mexico has more pockets of poverty than any other state. The Catholic Campaign for Human Development is working to change that.

Q U I C K S C A N

Home—and Neighborhood—Improvement
Making a House a Home
High Returns for High-risk Loans
Children First
And the Desert Will Bloom
How CCHD Works to Break the Cycle of Poverty

 

Pope John Paul II: 25 Years of Service

Photo by Ken Touchton




Tourists may call New Mexico the Land of Enchantment, but it’s also a Land of Poverty. Last January, St. Anthony Messenger visited parts of New Mexico often invisible to tourists to see who’s receiving grants from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD) and how that money is being used to eliminate poverty.

CCHD is primarily funded by an annual November collection in most U.S. parishes. Its grants have gone to almost every U.S. state, as well as Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico. (For the most recent report, visit CCHD.)

Homes, jobs and child care are three necessities for moving out of disenchantment and disenfranchisement toward sustainable success. CCHD grants—from people and for people—have assisted New Mexicans to improve their living conditions. Other grants enable entrepreneurs to create jobs and train workers. Still more grants have led to better choices for child care.

Why focus attention on New Mexico? With 17.7 percent of its population living below the poverty threshold of $18,100 for a family of four, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, New Mexico ranks first in people with the least.

Home—and Neighborhood—Improvement

“Welcome to the United States of America,” community organizer Ruben Nuñez says with a wry smile. We are standing in dusty Las Palmeras, a colonia. Nuñez gestures toward scattered, sagging trailers: “You see here families living in such conditions that most people will not believe they can be living here.”

For Las Palmeras and 36 other communities within 150 miles of the Mexican border, safe water, adequate sewage systems and passable roads languish on various government agency to-do lists. Ruben is lead organizer for the Colonias Development Council (with funding from CCHD). It’s his job to help local residents identify their needs, learn who can—and should—help, and persist until the problems are solved.

Ruben knows these problems. He and his family live in Salem, also a colonia.

Why do colonias exist? In the 1970s and 80s, when housing was in short supply, unscrupulous developers sold unimproved farmland to Mexican immigrants, who proudly sank their modest earnings into land. Most had only enough money left to plant secondhand trailers on their small plots.

Las Palmeras landowners were led to expect that, when all the parcels were sold, the basics would follow. Meanwhile, many dug their own crude wells—and waited. After all, they were citizens in the prosperous United States.

Citizen and La Palmeras resident Blanca González is proud of her new manufactured home. The Colonias Development Council assisted her through a lengthy application process to acquire this three-bedroom home with one and a half baths. Blanca’s contract is for a below-market-value price to be repaid over 20 years, from which she may not profit by subletting or selling her home. She, in turn, has intensified her activism for neighborhood improvement.

What are Las Palmeras’s most pressing needs? Blanca ticks off “natural gas, a drainage system, a park, a bus to pick up the children for school, a paved road.” To live here has been, for Blanca, “a beautiful experience, but difficult.”

Blanca and the 70-some other families who call Las Palmeras home are encouraged by current improvements. Voter turnout is high here, because residents want officeholders who will help them.

Manuela Mendez, in Montaña Vista, another colonia, hopes the power of the ballot box will help her community of 150 families, too. Montaña Vista has no electricity, water, gas or improved roads, even though its legal residents “battle a lot,” she says. “The county requires so much for so little.” Sometimes, the cooperation of several water associations is required to get faucets flowing—and that’s one sticking point in Montaña Vista.

For now, Lorenzo, Manuela’s husband, hauls a 50-gallon drum of water every day from his father’s house. With four grandchildren in their home, that doesn’t go very far. And even a New Mexico winter can be hard without heat.

Making a House a Home

To the north, in Albuquerque, women like Blanca and Manuela and their families can own homes with heat, water and paved streets through the Sawmill Community Land Trust, funded in part by CCHD. Near Albuquerque’s fashionable Old Town, the neighborhood now known as Arbolera de Vida (Orchard of Life) has been resurrected from land that long ago held small farms, orchards and acequias (irrigation canals).

At the turn of the last century, these 27 acres became the site of the largest lumber company in the Southwest. A particleboard manufacturing plant spewed particulates into the air and contaminated the groundwater, compromising the health of the working poor nearby.

In 1986, those residents said enough. In 2003, they’re saying, “We want the whole enchilada.”

What do they already have? First of all, the trust—begun by local residents—has the land, acquired from the city of Albuquerque in 1995 through a competitive process. The city has rezoned the area from industrial to mixed use. The trust has built 11 energy-efficient town homes around an inviting plaza and 12 detached single-family homes—and has plans for further development, even including small businesses.

Homes in the Arbolera are available only to first-time homebuyers—like Laurencita Chavez—who earn less than 80 percent of area median income. The land trust teaches homeowner skills and sound fiscal management and helps if anything goes awry in the house. The land belongs to the trust, which leases it to the buyers. This land trust model ensures that these homes will not be lost to low-income buyers through an influx of higher-income residents.

While the details seem complex to this observer, the results are easy to appreciate: People who couldn’t imagine home ownership now occupy cost-saving, environmentally friendly dwellings anyone would envy—in a neighborhood safe for children. In her old neighborhood, Laurencita worried about Steven, her teen son. No more.

Employed by Honeywell, Laurencita lived near the sawmill as a teenager and moved into her beautiful town home three years ago next month. “Nobody’s treated us wrong,” Laurencita says, with a mixture of gratitude and amazement. “The land trust,” she says, having made the Sawmill slogan her own, “is building a neighborhood, not just houses.”

High Returns for High-risk Loans

Owning a home generally requires income, which usually requires a job. The Catholic Campaign for Human Development has awarded many grants for projects that create work with dignity. It takes money to make money, it’s often said, and this is certainly true in job development.

But big banks back off from high-risk loans such as start-up businesses. So CCHD has placed a lot of confidence and some of its funds in The New Mexico Community Development Loan Fund.

Max Turcios, who emigrated from El Salvador in 1984, was confident he could revive the custom door and fine cabinetry business where he had once been employed. It was now bankrupt and Max was out of work.

The Community Development Loan Fund, which counts Max and Adobe Doors as just one of its many success stories, doesn’t just dispense small loans. It teaches clients how to price, how to manage, how to succeed. Vangie Gabaldon, executive director of the fund, says that the fund now averages 70 loans a year, but holds a vision of multiplying loans like loaves and fishes.

CCHD has encouraged the loan fund’s ambitious vision with at least six grants for planning, development and capacity-building. Among its clients are the Sawmill Community Land Trust and the Colonias Development Council. Another is the Southwest Creations Collaborative (SCC).

Joan Leahigh, CCHD director for the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, sings the praises of SCC, a company which thrives on contracts for machine sewing, silk screening and handwork. “Women who didn’t [have the confidence to] look up are now professional, confident and ‘look up.’” CCHD, says Joan, “shows that the Church is interested in everyday life. It demonstrates faith in people.”

Southwest Creations gives off a pleasant, industrious buzz. Susan Matteucci, collaborative director, began this business nine years ago in an Albuquerque church building. In 1996, they moved to their present site, now bursting at the seams with seamstresses and other skilled artisans.

CCHD has awarded five grants to the collaborative, which operates on a collegial model. Seven women serve rotating two-year terms on its board. These women make the big decisions—about customer contracts, working conditions and benefits—together.

Flora Lopez, who has worked at SCC almost from its inception, calls the business a “gift from God.” The women are familia to her, especially since Flora’s extended family is in Mexico. This familia offers fringe benefits such as vaccinations, diagnostic clinics, financial management and English classes: “Whatever we need to make our lives better,” says its director.

Children First

For many women working at Southwest Creations Collaborative, on-site child care makes their lives better—and their work possible. Working mothers can still breast-feed their infants. Mothers can lunch with their little ones. These mothers need not fear for their children while they work to feed their family.

“What about our children?” is a common dilemma among the working poor. SCC offers one innovative solution. In Columbus, New Mexico, national and diocesan CCHD grant monies have enabled Mujeres en Progreso to found another: Columbus Child Development Center.

Five mujeres (women) were the original dreamers—who thought they could improve their living and working conditions. One of their dreams was triggered by a real-life nightmare: Two young children in Columbus were locked in their home by desperate farm laborers who left them at home while they worked. Those children died in a house fire.

The mujeres were horrified and wanted to ensure a safe, affordable, stimulating child-care alternative.

Some husbands called the dreamers mujeres in regreso (backward women), but six years later 36 children are enrolled in a clean, new, safe facility, with a capacity for 32. (Some children attend only before and after school. Others arrive later and leave earlier.) Husbands who doubted were won over and even dug the postholes for the surrounding fence.

And the Desert Will Bloom

“Jesus came from the desert,” muses Bishop Ricardo Ramirez of the Las Cruces Diocese. “The desert is full of life, but most of it is very tiny.” Invisible, the bishop suggests. Beautiful. Fragile.

Bishop Ramirez’s diocese is home to many projects with funding from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development. These grants enable the gifts of many New Mexicans to flourish in the desert.

Joan Leahigh sees CCHD as an “act of faith.” She says, “It does affect us that there are people on the margins in New Mexico. When we care about the people on the periphery, we all benefit.”

We are one. The Catholic Campaign for Human Development is the Church’s community action on that gospel message.

How CCHD Works to Break the Cycle of Poverty

”There is a place where people are working to change things,” community organizer Ruben Nuñez says. The Rev. Robert J. Vitillo is executive director of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development. Its aim: to fund the people who work with a will to change things.

CCHD, founded in 1969-70 by the Catholic bishops of the United States, is the largest private funding source for organizations that empower the poor and work to eliminate poverty and injustice in the United States. Largely, its grants serve as seed money, helping applicants to develop other sources of income. CCHD requires that the projects it supports be controlled by the poor and low-income people served.

The weekend before Thanksgiving (November 22-23), the annual CCHD collection will be held in most Catholic parishes. One fourth of every diocesan collection funds projects in the home diocese. CCHD’s national office handles the rest of the grants. Need, not religious affiliation, is the number-one qualification, though all projects must conform to the moral teachings of the Church. The diocesan CCHD director is an important contact in the process of grant application.

New Mexico may have the largest percentage of persons living in poverty, but the U.S. Census Bureau reveals that poverty touches every state, all ethnicities and races, ages and family types. One in 10 families, one in eight Americans and one in six children in the United States lives in poverty.

CCHD has a twofold purpose: It intends not only to assist the poor to develop economic strength and political power, but also to educate Catholics about the Church’s social teaching and about poverty. Prayer, money, education and action are four avenues for joining in this national effort. Visit www.usccb.org/cchd to learn more.

 

Carol Ann Morrow, assistant managing editor of St. Anthony Messenger, and Ken Touchton, freelance photojournalist based in Virginia, traveled with other Catholic journalists from Las Cruces, New Mexico, to Albuquerque last January. They visited eight sites where CCHD funding has made a difference. Readers can visit www.povertyusa.org to take a journey of their own.


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