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Affordable Housing , Community Development

Invest in Each Other and Work Together: A Model That Works

23 December 2014

Don Shaw, Jr., Hartford Area Habitat for Humanity board member, former interim director (2013-2014) and former board chair (2004-2008)

"A world where everyone has a decent place to live." Does that sound attainable? Sure, if we really want it. I know I do. I know Habitat for Humanity does. It's Habitat's vision as it pursues the elimination of poverty housing globally.

But wait. Does a decent place to live mean just a safe, healthy dwelling of four walls and a roof? Not to Habitat, and not to anyone who understands what it means to create a welcoming and sustainable community. Habitat's vision is its base, not its boundary. The answer lies in two Habitat tag lines: "Building More Than a House", and "Building Homes. Building Community.  Building Hope.” These are integral to Habitat's mission, and those of the South Marshall Interfaith Coalition's call to action in Hartford's Asylum Hill neighborhood.

In 2011, Hartford Area Habitat for Humanity embarked on the most technically challenging home building development in its 25-year history – the construction of 16 affordable townhomes on Asylum Hill’s notoriously dangerous South Marshall Street. With construction just underway, an ensuing discussion between Habitat and Rev. Ed Horstmann, then senior minister at nearby Immanuel Congregational Church, raised a critical question, “What more could be done to improve the quality of life for all residents on South Marshall Street that the new Habitat homes by themselves won’t address?” That launched the formation of the South Marshall Interfaith Coalition, an interfaith partnership organized to address long-standing barriers to neighborhood improvement. Recognizing the extensive challenges, the Coalition clearly knew its efforts, as an informal, unfunded network of faith communities, could not be a go-it-alone endeavor. Other organizations had been focused on these challenges, some for decades. We needed to team with them.

With the Asylum Hill Neighborhood Association (AHNA) heading the list, these organizations included The Aetna, The Hartford, St. Francis Hospital, the Marshall House shelter, Catholic Charities Refugee and Immigration Services, the Hartford Public Library, the City of Hartford’s many departments, The Stowe Center, the Northside Institutions Neighborhood Alliance (NINA), Mutual Housing Association of Greater Hartford, Foodshare, and the new Habitat homeowners association.

The Coalition’s role became clear: Invest in each other and work together. Through communication, coordination, and collaboration we would step in stride, not on each other, to improve life on the street.

Under the umbrella of AHNA’s direction, the collaboration has increased understanding of the issues facing South Marshall Street residents. Coordinated advocacy has rallied more volunteers and greater resources to support South Marshall’s ongoing transformation. The results so far are encouraging.

  • Support for the Marshall House shelter’s annual South Marshall Street Block Party has grown to more than 15 organizations providing major assistance
  • Hartford Public Library’s immigration and civic participation initiatives have improved resident refugee connections to Asylum Hill
  • AHNA’s Welcoming Committee is hosting getting-to-know-you gatherings for residents
  • Catholic Charities has engaged refugees in greater community participation
  • Sessions with city officials, refugees and Habitat homeowners revealed their concerns and issues
  • The United Church of Christ awarded a grant supporting literacy empowerment for refugee and immigrant women
  • Residents are linked to Foodshare’s Asylum Hill Hunger Action Team initiatives
  • Habitat purchased additional land to build new homes;
  • Interfaith funding sponsored a new Habitat home on adjacent Laurel Street
  • Plans to construct a playground are advancing
  • Urban gardening is being fostered
  • Hartford Police implemented increased safety measures
  • Seasonal pop-up events help bring neighbors together
  • Members contributed to AHNA/United Way focus groups for the Harwood Report assessment of the Asylum Hill neighborhood
  • NINA plans new residential construction at the corner of South Marshall and Hawthorne streets and
  • Critically important, the initiatives cited focus on opening more channels for residents to communicate, participate and become more engaged in the success of their community.

The list is long and growing, but it is essential to recognize that important work on South Marshall by some Coalition members was underway before the Coalition convened. By creating a common table around which to share work and stories, the Coalition brought groups together to invest in each other’s complementary work walking in stride, side-by-side, improving life on South Marshall Street. It’s a model worth replicating in communities everywhere.

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