Budget Cuts and All, Codman Sq. Center Marks Birthday

"You're part of a national movement," Alexander von Hoffman told his audience Monday night. "These small groups have transformed what people considered urban wastelands across the country. It's a tremendous accomplishment."

Von Hoffman, a senior research fellow at Harvard and author of the recently-released House by House, Block by Block: The Rebirth of America's Urban Neighborhoods, addressed the 28th annual meeting of the Codman Square Health Center (CSHC), speaking to a packed house of more than a hundred in Codman Square's Great Hall.

Despite budget cuts that health center officials say have limited greatly the extent of services they can provide, von Hoffman and others hailed the CSHC as a national success model.

Von Hoffman said he devoted a chapter of his book, which studied how grassroots efforts fueled inner-city redevelopments during the last few decades of the last century, to the "success story I saw in Codman Square." A college friend of Codman Square's Executive Director Bill Walczak, von Hoffman said that non-profit community groups like the CSHC began to team with philanthropic foundations, government agencies, private corporations, and religious institutions in the 1970s to revitalize cities.

"This is something that worked," von Hoffman said. "This is not a trial, this is not an experiment. It has been tried; this is something that is going on."

Before introducing his old UMass-Boston classmate, Walczak reviewed the health center's fiscal year 2002. Raking in a net income of $155,000, the center employs 275 people and, according to Walczak, 96 percent of its patients report being "very satisfied" with the care they receive.

Walczak highlighted the center's technological advances, storing medical records electronically and boosting its online presence. Last year, the center began a merger of all its non-clinical programs with the Dorchester House Multi-Service Center, Walczak said, forming the collaborative "DotWell." Improved screening processes, added medical interpreters, a weight loss program, and a successful earned income tax credit program were among other center programs he highlighted.

Citing a study by non-profit advocacy organization Eureka Boston that showed area non-profits furnishing 26 percent of the Greater Boston work force, Walczak emphasized the ability of non-profit organizations to serve as "economic engines," providing jobs while continuing to provide services.

House Speaker Tom Finneran spoke briefly, paying tribute to Roger Greene, a CSHC board member who died in December. After the meeting, a room in the center was renamed "the Greene Room." Finneran named four aspects of the center's work - education, jobs, safe streets, and health care - as pillars of any community and, before hurrying off to a speech at Boston University, assured the audience that health centers had fared as well as could be expected in the current budget.

"A close examination of the budget would show that all of the organizations that had parts of themselves in there - their hopes and dreams - that the health centers did remarkably well," Finneran said, drawing a dubious look from Dorchester House Executive Director Joel Abrams. "For the context of the situation we had, they probably did better than everybody else."

"In our situation, we didn't do as badly as we could have done with respect to the free care pool, but we certainly didn't do well," Abrams said later.

Walczak reported that the CSHC suffered a half-million dollar cut in its budget and told the Reporter, "I guess if you're looking at a bad time, if it isn't horrible, then it looks better than it could have been."

Jim Hunt, president and CEO of the Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers, told the Reporter Tuesday that health centers did fare "fairly well" in navigating the choppy waters of budget cutting. By preserving for "medically underserved populations" $11.5 million in new money for one-time grants and continued inclusion in the state's free care pool, Hunt said that health centers scored better than many other human service organizations.

Walczak agreed, saying, "The reality is that there were some programs that were completely done in around the state of Massachusetts."

Von Hoffman, before peddling his book in the back of the room, said his study of low-income housing reform for an Atlantic Monthly article gave him the idea for the book, which focuses on areas of New York and Los Angeles as well.

"I wanted to capture that moment when certain people said, 'I don't care how bad it is, we're gonna improve it'," von Hoffman said, calling his work "a book of stories."

Von Hoffman said that Bostonians "have a particular talent for collaboration. There's probably more activists per square inch in Boston than anywhere else in the country."