St. Joseph’s Carpenter Society was begun by Monsignor Robert “Bob” McDermott, who passed away in early 2019. He grew up in East Camden in the 1940s and 1950s when it was a working-class neighborhood. He was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Camden and decades later, in 1985, returned to become pastor of his childhood home parish, St. Joseph’s Pro-Cathedral.
“When Father Bob moved back in the mid-80s, he was really struck by the dilapidation and the deterioration,” said Hogan. “Right across from the church were four or five abandoned burned-out houses.”
Hogan said the area showed “a lack of hope.” Residents who looked out their windows were only able “to see buildings crumbling.” They wouldn’t hear children playing in the streets and they wouldn’t find a safe place for families.
Camden, N.J. has a reputation for being a city that has seen better times. The city overlooks Philadelphia from the east side of the Delaware River. Its 74,000 people suffer high unemployment and high crime. In 2012 it ranked as the poorest city in the U.S.
The city is “consistently ranked as one of the poorest and actually one of the most violent cities in the U.S.,” Hogan told CNA.
Back in the 1980s, one of Father McDermott’s parishioners, a Vietnamese refugee, could not find adequate housing for his family of nine. The priest founded the St. Joseph’s Carpenter Society to respond to the family’s need—and to respond to the hardships of life in Camden. The society renovated a home for the family and used that effort as a starting point to transform the neighborhood.
Now, the organization identifies vacant and abandoned houses to renovate and sell to people who need a home – after giving careful training to low-income clients about budgeting, the homebuying process, and what it takes to be a homeowner.
“When we started working, 1 in every 6 houses was abandoned,” said Hogan. “We’re now up to 1 in 40. We’re really making a difference. We have entire blocks now that don’t have an abandoned house on it.”
The society claims success in stabilizing the East Camden neighborhood, citing low vacancy rates and high homeownerships that are both better than Camden in general, its website says.
Since Father McDermott started St. Joseph’s Carpenter Society more than three decades ago, it has graduated 3,000 people through its education program. It has helped with 450 home repairs and sold close to 1,000 homes. Once people buy, they rarely leave. Eighty-five percent of these homeowners still live in the home they bought from the non-profit.
Behind each number is a personal story.
“The exciting part is when we hand over keys to a family,” said Hogan. “A lot of them just look at us like they never felt that this was going to happen.”
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Figueroa described the joy of closing day for clients: “sometimes they start crying, sometimes they run out and start screaming with their kids.”
One beneficiary family was paying very high rent--so high that when they later became homeowners, their mortgage payment was only two-thirds the cost of their previous rent payment, Hogan said.
“The conditions were so bad that a young mother and young father spent most of their day in the car. The kids did their homework in the car, the kids ate in their car,” Hogan recounted. Their vermin-infested rental apartment was in such bad shape that “they wanted to limit the time that the kids were in that environment.”
Now they have gone through the St. Joseph’s program and have a home of their own.
“She couldn’t have been more pleased with the fact that she was now controlling her life in a much better way, and the lives of her children,” Hogan added. “She was still working, like she had been before, but now the house was hers and she could keep it clean. And do everything she needed to do to keep her kids safe.”
“This woman was all smiles,” she said.