The Troubling Work of Reclamation

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Must the Carr* family be sacrificed for the good of the neighborhood? I have been agonizing over the question for several weeks now. It's not like they are bad people. Mr. Carr is a hard working husband and father, away at work a good bit of the time. Mrs. Carr is an attentive mother who stays home with a severely disabled child. But their boys - now here's the problem - their two older sons, who are really men, bring all kinds of trouble into the community. Our ministry recently bought the house on Swazey Avenue that the Carr's have been renting and now the community wants us to put them out. Swazey Avenue is one of those rough streets in East Lake that we've made a commitment to reclaim. It's a dead end street - in more ways than one. Women of the night work the corner in broad daylight and men congregate in front yards to gamble, get high and conduct their curbside drug trade. Frequent bursts of gunfire keep neighbors on edge. But unlike other streets in the East Lake community, Swazey Avenue happens to be located just one block beyond the jurisdiction of the Atlanta police. For whatever reasons, an arbitrary line drawn by planners nearly a century ago places Swazey Avenue outside city boundaries, off the map of the East Lake neighborhood. With no community association to represent its interests, not even a name to designate its identity on public planning maps, Swazey Avenue is a no-man's land.

Most of the 60 homes on Swazey are rental. A few older home owners still hang on but they too would leave if they could get anything for their property. They cling to bitter-sweet memories of days when the street abounded with happy family life, but that was long ago, before close friends sold and moved away. Now it is a dangerous place, unsafe for everyone, especially for children and the older generation. Hope has reached a low ebb here and courage has failed the good-hearted folk who remain. This is turf badly in need of reclaiming. And that is the unique mission of FCS: "Creating in the city healthy places where families flourish and the peace of God is present."

We launched our take-back strategy this past summer by going door to door, meeting the kids in the neighborhood and inviting them to participate in our summer camping program. Sitting in living rooms, responding to probing questions from cautious parents who wondered who we were and where we had come from, we learned much about the fear that permeated the community. Parents told us which houses on the street their children were to stay clear of - those where caches of drugs were stored and where prostitution was going on. Their children knew too well the street names and activities of the dealers, prostitutes, mules and sentries who trafficked in these illicit trades. Summer camp with its fun-packed schedule and energetic staff came as a welcome relief to both parents and kids.

Our next step was to recruit some of our staff to move onto Swazey Avenue as neighbor-leaders. We bought a couple of vacant houses, got volunteers to renovate them and occupied them with interns and a family who had recently joined our ministry to work with young people. This gave us front-line troops on site to build relationships with neighbors, gather more intelligence on the inner workings of the neighborhood, and begin rebuilding community strength through organizing efforts.

Targeted real estate acquisition was next. We began tracking down the owners of crack houses and applied not-so-subtle pressure on them to either clean up or shut down these residences. That's how we came into possession of the house where the Carr's were living. The slumlord was tired of the hassle and agreed to sell the property to us. We informed Mr. and Mrs. Carr of our reason for purchasing their home and encouraged them to participate in the clean-up of the community. We even discussed the possibility of a lease-purchase agreement that would enable them to become homeowners if they became positive contributing members of the community. But to little avail. Their boys were well beyond parental control and the drug dealing, gambling activities persisted. That's when the neighbors asked us to evict them.

Is expelling a family from the community a redemptive act? Could the trauma of eviction on an already over-stressed household be the pivotal event to jolt these parents into asserting control over adult children who are wreaking havoc on their family? Or is it too late for that, too many years of tolerating the tyranny, too exhausted from just surviving to mount a family upheaval? Does expulsion of this family mean simply relief for one neighborhood at the expense of another into which they will transport their pathology? And what about redemption for their misguided sons who have taken a destructive path but who are created in the image of God and who have great worth and potential? Is there not an intervention, a compassionate approach, that would turn their hearts toward the God who loves them?

We will never know the answers to these sobering questions. The Carr's have been given notice that they must leave. It came down to a choice between the pressing need to restore health and safety to the community vs. the uncertain and most likely unwelcome challenge of a family intervention. The decision makes perfect sense, I know. Were the neighborhood stronger, if there were more male role models to give leadership to the street, if healthy norms knit neighbors together in secure relationships, then maybe the community could assume a more gracious stance with the Carr's. But like a body wasted from a malignancy gone unchecked, radical surgery is needed if wellness is to return. There are times when a weakened community and a diseased family cannot both be saved.

Yesterday I drove down Swazey Avenue. Sitting on a metal folding chair by the curb in front of Carr's house was a teenage boy waiting for customers to drive up to purchase drugs. It reconfirmed that we had done the right thing in giving the family notice to move out by the end of the month. And it broke my heart.

* I've changed their name to protect confidentiality.

Bob Lupton

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