CAMDEN, N.J.—On Broadway, the main drag in Camden, N.J., junkies high on heroin wander insensibly between cars and abandoned townhouses. Right across the Delaware River from thriving Philadelphia, Camden is a city that never recovered from either deindustrialization or the 1980s crack epidemic. While nearby Philadelphia, New York, and Atlantic City have stamped out their drug epidemic, users from those cities come to Camden where the drug market is the only thriving part of its economy.
How bad has it become? In one 2012 incident, four police officers attempted to arrest a suspected drug dealer, but a crowd of more than 100 attacked the officers and released the suspected dealer. In 2013 Camden dissolved its own police force, which didn’t have enough officers to respond to 911 calls, and on most nights had only 12 officers patrolling the city. The county has recreated it as a nonunionized force and hired more officers, but crime still rules: A police officer I interviewed had just come from the funeral of another officer’s son who had been murdered in the city. Most of the people 24-year police veteran Elizer Agron grew up with in Camden are either dead or on drugs.
“There’s nothing good here. Nothing at all,” said Shannon, a 24-year-old drug addict in Camden who supports her habit through prostitution. “When people ask me about Camden, the easy way to sum it up is sex, drugs, and murder.” A prostitute was strangled in April behind an abandoned car wash just off of Broadway. Shannon has had many close calls. Recently, one client stole her money, beat her, and broke her cheek in four places. She saw her own blood everywhere and thought she was going to die, but after three days in the hospital returned to her hard life.
Naïve ministries won’t survive in Camden, but Seeds of Hope is different: It’s so street savvy that the police department sometimes calls the ministry staff when making arrests. “The chief, he knows the problems in the city weren’t going to be solved with handcuffs and guns,” said Seeds of Hope’s co-founder Brenda Antinore, a former high-school teacher. Her husband Bill was a successful lawyer, and they had three children and a nice suburban home—but both became addicted to cocaine and drove into Camden to buy drugs.
Police busted the couple in public fashion in 1995, with media coverage compounding the humiliation. Bill, convicted of embezzlement connected to his drug problem, lost his law license and went to prison for 15 months: His dad, a Philadelphia police officer, never spoke to him again. Brenda got three years’ probation. Bill came to faith in Christ, Brenda deepened her own faith, and their marriage survived. In 1999, after prison, Bill partnered with a local church in Camden to start South Jersey Aftercare, a discipleship ministry for former prisoners. Fast-talking Brenda, familiar with drug addiction, began building relationships with the drug-addicted prostitutes on Broadway, and that developed into the ministry She Has A Name.
Seeds of Hope—the umbrella organization for ministries to prisoners, prostitutes, and the poor—grew as the years passed. It now has four townhouses that serve as Christian halfway homes, staffed with former prisoners who mentor men freshly released, and Bill also goes into prisons to hold Bible studies. Another arm of the ministry, My Father’s Hands, seeks out the poor and homeless through street outreach and meals. On Saturday mornings, Seeds of Hope hosts a breakfast where around 300 former prisoners, the homeless, prostitutes, and drug dealers come and eat and hear worship music. Proceeds from the Seeds of Hope thrift store help to fund the ministry, and men in the halfway house can work at the store.
The Antinores’ background of addiction gives them credibility with people on the street, and the years they have worked in South Camden have given them credibility with law enforcement. When Sgt. Agron, who also serves as a chaplain on the force, first heard from Bill Antinore about Seeds of Hope, he rolled his eyes. “Here goes another person who’s just going to waste my time,” he remembers thinking. He tested Bill, asking him to show up to an event or help with something: Bill followed through every time. Today Agron says, “We would be at a loss without this ministry in place.”
Officers contact the ministry when they arrest a prostitute, and the prostitute is given an option to get help from Seeds of Hope—which will refer her to a faith-based rehabilitation program—or go to the police station for processing. Previously, police would book the prostitutes, lock them up, send them to a court hearing, where they would be released—and the cycle would begin again. “Now I believe with the people we have in place, they’re treated with respect and dignity,” said Agron. “Restoring them is a better option.”
Bill says most problems in Camden stem from a breakdown of families, and the staff of Seeds of Hope tries to rebuild family relationships or become a family to those who are alone. Prayer is central to everything Seeds of Hope does: Staff members and volunteers pray with people in Camden every chance they get. I watched a Seeds of Hope team of three on the street talking and praying with prostitutes as drug dealers sat on stoops nearby and a police officer passed by in his cruiser. He beeped his horn in a friendly way and raised his arm to Bill and Brenda: Bill waved back, the officer drove on, and the Antinores returned to praying with the prostitutes.
The Antinores usually bring only a trained volunteer or two with them on the street; they want to be approachable, not a “SWAT team,” as Brenda said. They have food and toiletries, since most of the women sleep in abandoned buildings and don’t own anything. Brenda is constantly rolling down the window. “You doing OK, babe?” she calls out to one: “There’s [Karen] … she’s struggling with the lies, the guilt, the shame. [Dasha]! I gotta stop and talk to her. Oh my gosh, everyone’s out today. There’s [Rachel], there’s [Mira].” Rolling down the window again: “You OK?”
Brenda knows intimate details of the women’s lives. One recently had a miscarriage. Another lets Brenda know she will be working for a man on a prostitution website for a little while, and shares what her online name will be: She just wants someone to know where she is. Brenda, after watching women die in the hospital from overdoses, knows every interaction with these women could be her last. Even as they talk with the women, a drug dealer approaches and threatens one for a payment owed. In the face of all the danger, the Antinores feel the protection of being where God has called them, and they recently enjoyed seeing one of the former prostitutes graduate from a Christian rehabilitation program in upstate New York.
Many of the prostitutes are white women from the suburbs who became addicted and came to Camden to support the habit through prostitution. That’s Shannon’s story: Six years ago when she was in Camden to buy drugs, she met a man, and never went home again. Now she says, “My life is the same every day. I get high, I get a date, I get high, I get a date. I might be up for two, three days. And then I finally go to sleep. I just woke up a little bit ago. If I’m not high, then my mind just starts going. I get real depressed, and I start thinking of wanting to change my life.” I asked Shannon what she would want in her ideal world. She responded, “To be wanted by my family.” Tears began rolling down her face.
Brenda reassured Shannon that someday she will be ready to get clean, that Brenda will be there to walk her through it—and then they will have a girls’ movie night together at the Seeds of Hope house. Brenda told Shannon, “I prayed today and the Lord brought you up the street. He knows what He’s doing, and it’s all about Him.” Then Brenda put her arm around Shannon and prayed. They pray together at least once a week.
• 2012 revenue: $279,988
• 2012 expenses: $242,199
• Net assets at the end of 2012: $119,667
• Bill Antinore’s salary: $60,000
• Staff: 3 full-time; one part-time
• 2014 budget: $320,000
• Website: seedsofhopeministries.org
In New York City a dilapidated public housing project may be close to a billionaire’s penthouse. A House on Beekman tries to lessen the distance between one extremely under-resourced neighborhood in the South Bronx and the extreme success of other parts of the city. In Mott Haven, New York City’s poorest neighborhood, Beekman’s goal is to walk with families from pregnancy until their children graduate college. The goal is not crisis relief to low income families but long-term change that staff members realize may be decades away. Many programs exist in poor neighborhoods, but this organization realizes that children often bounce from program to program and fall off the radar.
“I’m not close to my family. These are all my family,” said Qalinda Washington, the mother of 2-year-old Harmony. Washington, like Anabel Diaz and her 2-year-old, and Tarnya Ford and her 3-year-old, are part of Beekman’s Mommy and Me program, which mentors mothers from pregnancy and teaches them about raising their children—developing their children’s social skills, learning about healthy eating, and understanding their children’s emotions. Ford, watching how Mommy and Me staffers act toward children, said, “It’s different when they know them from birth. They know their needs.”
Sara Miller, Beekman’s executive director, went with every mom in the program to the hospital for delivery, and plans to be at the children’s college graduations. Miller, white and from Texas, felt convicted about the biblical call to the poor as a student at New York University, and at age 21 moved from lower Manhattan to the Bronx neighborhood. Miller said the decision to move there wasn’t “touchy feely” but simple obedience: “I felt God saying, ‘I’m about to move here. I can do it without you. Your choice.’” White people don’t live in the black and Hispanic neighborhood, and some residents thought she was an undercover cop.
That was five years ago. I asked the women in the neighborhood what they thought of a white woman moving in to start a ministry. “The urban community is raised not to trust,” said Rosa Garcia, a mom in the neighborhood who is now on staff with the organization. “But Sara did a good job of building that trust and that friendship.” Children hanging out on the street began coming to her house after school. She would help them with their homework, and they would play games and eat together. Many of those children are now in the ministry’s after-school program, which has officially been in place for two years.
One day after school, I watched kids in the program pouring into the organization’s building after playing in the park—and the boys held the door for the girls. They split up with mentors to work on projects and homework. Milka, 9, had earrings displaying her name and was reading Beezus and Ramona by Beverly Cleary. Boys quizzed each other with Brain Quest cards. Seanette Gwin, who lives in the neighborhood and works for the organization, looks at her group and says proudly, “All my kids are reading.” One boy, reading a book about Harry Houdini, looked up to Gwin to exclaim, “I didn’t know he’s from Hungary!” A girl told Gwin, “I don’t like math,” and Gwin replied, “You’re very good at it.”
Beekman has a good reputation in the community, and even “the head of the Bloods likes us for some reason,” said Tracy Thornton, director of operations and co-founder. Her goal was to connect Manhattan resources with the Mott Haven neighborhood. “There’s so much gifting in the people of the South Bronx, but there are not resources for those things to develop,” said Miller. Many of the parents aren’t believers, but God has been bringing children to faith in Christ, and at one point a child asked Miller if he could disciple a younger child in the program, to “teach him about Jesus.”
Just establishing a normal environment for the children is a struggle. The poorly constructed buildings where Miller lives and the organization has its office also shelter rats, one of whom was so big Miller thought a child was walking upstairs. This past brutally cold winter, the landlord at the center didn’t have functioning heat, and the organization ran space heaters to get the indoor temperature up to 40 degrees. In April, there were leaks every day from the public housing above the center. “Stuff that you would never get away with in Manhattan,” said Thornton.
The uncertainty of poverty is tough too. One mom in the program lived in a Bronx shelter with her kids, and one day the shelter told her she was being transferred to a different shelter across the city. “They can’t fight the system,” said Thornton: “She’s involved in our program, she’s finally in the community and then they just uproot it, which messes everything up. … The shelter system makes me want to lose my mind.” Beekman, as it ages, hopes to get more involved in these systemic housing issues on behalf of its families.
• 2012/13 revenue: $254,531
• 2012/13 expenses: $274,591
• Net assets at the end of 2013: $41,047
• Sara Miller’s salary: $65,000
• Staff: 6 full-time; 3 part-time
• 2013 budget: $380,000
• Website: ahouseonbeekman.org