The Rocker Returns
Jon Bon Jovi keeps his commitment to Camden
By Marianne Aleardi

It was 2009 when superstar and philanthropist Jon Bon Jovi first toured Camden to see up close the severe problems that plagued the city. He met with community leaders struggling to incite change and made a promise to use his greatest resources – his funds and his fame – to support their work. The rocker visited again last month, only this time he was touring a new 17,000-square-foot homeless facility, a place he helped build without picking up a hammer or nail.

“Today we prove once again that we are committed to Camden,” Bon Jovi said on the day he toured the shelter, called Joseph’s House. “Today we have an opportunity to see what was, just a year ago, a vision.”

Over the past four years, Bon Jovi has brought to life a number of once-envisioned programs. He started small, initially working with a project called Camden GreenUP, which rehabbed vacant lots, turning them from dilapidated eyesores to green landscapes. The Jon Bon Jovi Foundation, headquartered in Philadelphia, gave a $50,000 matching donation for the improvement of the first 81 lots.

“Bon Jovi’s initial support kick-started that program,” says Jake Gordon, executive director of the Camden Special Services District, which manages GreenUP. “After working on those first lots, we were able to receive a federal grant to do more.” To date, 200 lots have been transformed.

Because a large part of the JBJ Foundation’s mission addresses housing issues, it was a natural progression for the musician to turn his attention to Heart of Camden, a nonprofit that has rehabbed more than 225 homes since its inception in 1985. The renovated homes – complete with new plumbing, heating and electric – are eventually sold to Camden residents at an affordable price.

LPP_4637The foundation gave Heart of Camden a $262,000 grant, which helped them build nine homes. A year later, Heart of Camden honored Bon Jovi with its “Small Things with Great Love” award, honoring him at their annual gala in Cherry Hill, which he attended. (The sold-out gala raised an additional $300,000.)

“Jon Bon Jovi’s work, his spirit and the mission of his foundation is sincerely to help the homeless and the families of Camden, and to rebuild neighborhoods,” says Helene Pierson, former executive director of Heart of Camden who was with Bon Jovi during that first visit to Camden. “He’s passionate about his work. It isn’t about throwing money at something and never being a part of it. It’s about being part of something.”

The foundation also gave a grant for $58,000 to Hopeworks ’N Camden, an organization that teaches Camden youth career skills like web design and video production. The grant money was dedicated to the nonprofit’s construction of a community home for 10 young adults. Bon Jovi and his wife spent time with the young people at Hopeworks, answering questions and offering advice. The rocker talked about working hard to get what you want, mentioning how he continues to practice playing guitar every day.

Then earlier this year, Bon Jovi designated a $200,000 grant to partially fund the purchase and renovation of the new Joseph’s House, a project that will cost a little more than $1.1 million. Sitting just off Route 676 on Atlantic Avenue in Camden, the building was acquired in August and renovations began soon after. The fenced-in property will house a kitchen, recreation room and space to provide emergency shelter for up to 75 people. The facility opened this month.

Joseph’s House had been operating at a nearby property on Church Street, providing overnight shelter to 40 people. Because of low funding, it only opened during winter months. (In fact, Bon Jovi posted a birthday wish on his website in the spring of 2011 asking for donations so the shelter could remain open while a harsh winter ended. He got his wish.) Those running the original location say they weren’t able to provide a “dignified overnight stay” because people had to sleep on the floor. In the new shelter, residents will have cots to sleep on.

Another new feature of Joseph’s House will be the addition of onsite social and medical services. Project H.O.P.E., a nonprofit that helps the homeless population, will provide case management services, plus health care, mental health and substance abuse services. In addition, volunteer physicians and nurses from Our Lady of Lourdes Medical Center will staff a medical clinic.

mayor DSC_1855“Having been involved in similar projects across the country, we realize the need for not only safe and accessible shelter but also the need to have many service providers under one roof,” says Bon Jovi. “We’ve seen this model work.

“If you think about it in the context of the people who are coming off the street, providing four walls or a meal is a desperate need, but having the opportunity to take that next step because of social services is what will set Joseph’s House apart.”

Organizers say the long-term goal of Joseph’s House is to get homeless men and women off the street permanently. “This is a mission drawn out of our passion to help people,” says Monsignor Robert McDermott, pastor of St. Joseph’s Pro-Cathedral. McDermott serves as board chair of The Joseph Fund, which provides fundraising support to six ministries served by St. Joseph’s Pro-Cathedral, including Joseph’s House (see sidebar on p. 39).

“Over 1,000 people are homeless every night on the streets of Camden,” McDermott says. “After seeing people sleeping on the top of a car or on a porch – certainly not a place that is as comfortable as what you and I have – it moved us to look at how we can make an effort to house the homeless in our city. This is another stage of that. We’ll be able to walk people through a time in their lives that will give them an opportunity for great improvement.”

McDermott says that by providing onsite medical and social services at Joseph’s House, “we hope to provide the support necessary for those who visit us to escape poverty.”

Bon Jovi’s message when he toured the new facility was consistent with his message the first day he visited Camden: people can make a difference when they unite their efforts.

“If there is anyone who can lend their skills, assets or resources to the building of Camden, or to Philadelphia or to your hometown,” he said, “I encourage you to do so. We know that government can’t do it alone. We know the private sector can’t do it alone. But together – as we’ve been saying for years now – we can.”


December 2013
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