Faith Formation profile – Attorney inspired by Catholic social teaching in struggle for safe and affordable housing

CAMDEN — While on a shopping trip, Kevin Walsh spotted a slow-moving mama duck and her children navigating a busy intersection near a South Jersey mall. He watched as the baby ducks fell through a sewer grate. Two had already been hit by cars. Unable to lift up the metal he called the local authorities and a television news crew to get action.

Mama and her surviving ducklings were saved.

Walsh’s activism is not limited to the web-footed variety. The attorney, 37, is associate director of Fair Share Housing Center, based in Cherry Hill, an agency devoted to accessing safe and affordable housing for struggling New Jersey families.

When it comes to human families seeking shelter, Walsh can be found in courtrooms and legislative hallways arguing the case against zoning regulations that often block the development of starter homes and apartments affordable to low-income families, backed up by the landmark 1975 Mount Laurel case that required reluctant towns and villages to open boundaries to low-cost housing.

That opportunity to live beyond confined ghettos is an essential tool in breaking the cycle of poverty, says Walsh.

“So much of the opportunity we have is decided by the quality of life we have and our shelter. It’s not just a roof and four walls. It’s who we are as people,” he says during a recent interview here in a city comprised of the highest percentage of poor people in the state.

Access to good education, basic nutrition, and health care is very often determined by one’s zip code, notes Walsh. He sees zoning to restrict and prevent low-income housing as limiting opportunity. It is a chronic New Jersey issue as towns have historically attempted to steer themselves away from the requirements of the Mount Laurel decision.

“Fundamentally zoning codes are moral statements,” he says, an insight that derives in large part from his Catholic beliefs.

A graduate of St. Peter’s School, Merchantville, Camden Catholic High School, The Catholic University of America and Rutgers University School of Law in Camden, he is a member of Sacred Heart Church here and lives in Pennsauken with Rosemary, his wife, and their two children (a third is due this summer).

A social conscience and his Catholic background are inseparable, he notes. He lobbied to rescind the death penalty in New Jersey, a successful effort that brought together, among others, the Knights of Columbus and Pax Christi, who rallied to the cause as a life issue inspired by a Catholic social vision.

He’s spent much of his education learning about that social vision and applying it to the issues he sees around him. While in college, he read extensively about poverty and, as president of student government, went on mission trips to Mississippi and Appalachia. After college, he worked for the Jesuit Volunteer Corps in Richmond, Va.

In his travels through the South, he couldn’t help but notice how often railroad tracks divided blacks and whites, rich and poor, in boundaries that were rarely breached. And then he thought about South Jersey, his home, where city and town boundaries served a similar purpose.

“It bothered me that there was so much indifference,” he says. “Catholic social teachings declare that we are not to be indifferent to poverty, hunger and people living in places that are intentionally poor and segregated.” Fair housing in New Jersey has been supported by New Jersey’s Catholic bishops, including Bishop Joseph Galante of Camden.

His dedication to Catholic social justice causes has been noticed in diocesan circles. Walsh is a member of the board of diocesan Catholic Charities and the diocesan Life and Justice Advisory Council.

“Kevin is an amazing combination of intellect, gentleness, and righteous anger over injustice,” says Kevin Hickey, diocesan director of Catholic Charities, who notes that Walsh is also an engaging storyteller when Charities’ board and staff come together.

Larry DiPaul, director of Life and Justice Ministries for the diocese, has invited Walsh to speak on housing issues at youth retreats. “He opens people’s eyes, hearts, and consciences” to the plight of poor families of all sorts.

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