Cover Story

Mrs. Taylor's neighborhood

Even as local governments struggle to innovate their public assistance--from welfare reform to Medicare to education-cities such as Milwaukee are increasingly looking to the private sector for answers

Issue: "Charity begins at home," May 16, 1998

(in Milwaukee) - At first glance, Cordelia Taylor hardly looks like a model. She's 60-something, petite, and attired in a conservative suit with sensible pumps. Yet the former nursing home administrator and mother of eight is becoming a model of sorts-a model for community-based charity that actually works.

Nine years ago, with her children grown and her big house in inner-city Milwaukee feeling empty, Mrs. Taylor began taking in elderly people from off the streets. Some of them she took from cardboard boxes to live in her newly christened Family House. She fed her eight residents with food from a local food bank and provided garden plots where they could grow some of their own food. Soon neighborhood children learned to wait out front for her son James to return with the groceries. When they asked for some of the food he was carrying, James would practice his mother's nothing-comes-free philosophy by demanding to see their report cards or their homework for the next day. Before long the children began doing their homework on the front porch under the watchful eye of various Taylor family members.

Today Mrs. Taylor's Family House ministry would be more accurately called Family Block-even Family Neighborhood. She has bought and renovated seven houses that serve as home to 33 residents, with plans for twice that number when construction is complete. Nor is her success story unique. Aided by the largesse of Milwaukee's Bradley Foundation, Mrs. Taylor is just one of many community-based service providers who are making this city a case study in cutting through the red tape to give the needy what they really need. And the success may not be confined to Milwaukee, thanks to a loose coalition in Congress known as the Renewal Alliance. Arguing that "private, faith-based efforts offer real help and hope for restoring individuals to productive lives," the Alliance, headed by Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), introduced a bill last month that would provide tax breaks and other incentives designed to strengthen community efforts like Family House.

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Not that Mrs. Taylor is waiting for help from Washington. She's busy turning a grocery store on the corner into a spotless, suburban-looking clinic. As for the bar opposite the clinic, Mrs. Taylor envisions it as a community center. "God gave it to me," she says of the seedy-looking building that was shut down because of drug trafficking. "It's just a matter of time. I have to wait for him."

She's not about to wait for anyone else, from foot-dragging bureaucrats to drug-dealing neighbors. She is particularly proud of her latest acquisition, a shell of a house with bullet holes in the window frames and graffiti from the Gangster Disciples still spray-painted on the walls. When three of her elderly charges had to crawl under their beds one night to avoid the crossfire in a shootout between gangs, Mrs. Taylor had had enough.

"The next morning I went down to the Fifth District and I said 'Either do something about this today or I'm going to Channel 6.' By that afternoon there were police cars everywhere and all the gang members were cleared out."

That no-nonsense, do-it-yourself approach is what drove Mrs. Taylor from her nursing home career in the first place. She says she resented bureaucratic regulations such as strapping ambulatory patients into wheelchairs to avoid liability claims or waking residents at 6:30 a.m. in order to accommodate the schedule of breakfast workers.

Family House is largely free of such bureaucracy. Residents can suggest daily menus and are free to smoke in their rooms, though Mrs. Taylor disapproves of the habit. To make their rooms feel more homely, she prominently displays residents' names on their doors and calls out for permission before entering. There are numbers on each door too-a sign that not even Family House can completely avoid bureaucratic meddling. "The state requires me to put a patient number on the door," Mrs. Taylor explains, "but I make it as small as I can, so it's more personal."

The price for such independence is high. Other than a few residents who contribute a portion of their Social Security checks to defray costs, Family House receives no government help. The ministry's $750,000 annual budget comes largely from donations by individuals and churches. Those funds can be tedious to raise, but they come free of strings. "With the government, sometimes they'll give you money for white paint, but what you really need is green paint," Mrs. Taylor says. "I think it's just foolishness."


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