Love Amid the Rubble | Miscellany | Chicago Reader

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Love Amid the Rubble

Habitat for Humanity, that Jimmy Carter bunch of do-gooders, reclaims a tiny slice of the west side.


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On the east end of the street is the Rose of Sharon Spiritual Church; the Holy Raiders Revival Church is just a couple of blocks away. Both look more like garages than anything designed for ecclesiastical purposes. Around the corner, at Wilcox and Karlov, a car stops in the middle of the intersection; a loitering man saunters up, hands over a small brown paper bag to the driver, and riffles through the wad of small bills he's handed in return in a leisurely manner. On the parkway in front of a row of two-flats, broken glass glitters in the cold autumnal sunlight like cut diamonds popping out of the barren soil. Hardly a car on the street looks less than ten years old; most have a smashed window, a bashed fender, rust metastasizing from the bottom up. Trunk lock reinforcers are de rigueur. A white face is conspicuous.

At first glance, there's not much to set 4051 W. Monroe apart from its neighbors. The windows are boarded up. A falling-apart Dumpster parked in front is filled with junky furniture and discarded building materials. The Dumpster makes it hard to see the "Habitat for Humanity" sign on the front of the building. Inside is a mess: plaster stripped from lath, no radiators, and it's dirty and bone-chillingly cold.

In the doorway, a middle-aged white man in dusty work clothes is struggling to get a nail out of a board. In the gangway, a younger but equally white trio, wearing clothes that have to be from Land's End or Eddie Bauer, cheerfully tuckpoints brick, while inside others are sawing, stripping wood, hammering, mixing cement. The windows are boarded up to protect the newly installed thermal-pane windows until the new owners move in. A new heating system is on its way. Habitat for Humanity, known in some quarters as "that Jimmy Carter bunch of do-gooders," is working, in the name of Christian love and decent housing, to reclaim another tiny sliver of the west side.

Habitat for Humanity was founded in 1976 by Millard Fuller, an Alabama fundamentalist Christian and former businessman and lawyer. Eight years earlier he had achieved his goal of becoming a millionaire (he was 30) and decided to chuck it all--sold all that he had and gave the money to the poor. After building houses in Zaire with his wife and four children for several years, Fuller started Habitat for Humanity, an international organization with the motto, "A decent house in a decent community for God's people in need." In Chicago, that translates primarily to rehabbing two- and three-flats, with a leavening of new construction on vacant lots. Fuller's vision is being realized, but slowly.

Most of Habitat's publicity came once former president Jimmy Carter got involved. He gives one week a year to work on housing for the poor, which offers innumerable photo opportunities of the erstwhile leader of the free world in overalls and prole cap clutching a hammer. When Carter put in some time in Chicago a couple of years ago, it brought the local organization a flurry of attention that gave them a boost--but not as big a boost as they'd hoped. Despite the assorted TV and print stories that year, they fell short of their goal--both in fund-raising and in number of units built.

Fuller's practical, small-town origins show in the Habitat plan: this is not a giveaway program--it operates on a blend of biblical principles and business savvy. Habitat people take seriously the Exodus 22:25 injunction against usury--"If you advance money to any poor man amongst my people, you shall not act like a money-lender: you must not exact interest in advance from him." They carry it a step further, though, and charge their buyers no interest at all. Buyers must put down $750 and make payments, typically about $250 a month, and they must work on the houses they're buying. Habitat requires 250 hours of labor on the buyer's own building, and 100 hours on other projects. Once they take possession, buyers are supposed to be looked in on from time to time to make sure that they know how to keep up their new property--and are doing so.

No government money is used; private donations and the mortgages of earlier buyers support the current work. Metro Chicago Habitat for Humanity is a loose umbrella organization that mostly coordinates fund-raising appeals to corporations and foundations for the various local councils: Albany Park, Uptown, Chicago South Region, Westside, Pilsen-Little Village, and Near Northwest. Westside Council operates out of Bethel Lutheran Church, 130 N. Keeler, and its community center, Bethel New Life Center.

In the case of the Westside Project Council, most of the money and labor comes from white, middle-class churches and their members, although other volunteers are welcome. On this bright but chilly October Saturday there are about two dozen of them, all white, most of them from the two sponsoring churches, Saint Paul's United Church of Christ in Lincoln Park and First Congregational Church of Western Springs. Saint Paul's runs a car pool every Saturday; those from Grace Lutheran Church in River Forest have driven in. A regular work shift is 9 AM to 2 PM on a Saturday, which means, says Anne Dickerson, an attorney from Saint Paul's dressed in sweatshirt, jeans, sneakers, and dangling earrings, "that even though we've been working on this for about 15 weeks, there's really only about two weeks' worth of work finished."

Each of the "co-adopting" churches on this project has committed itself to raising from $15,000 to $18,000 and to bringing out at least five volunteers a week. The total cost of the project, including the original purchase of the derelict property, is expected to be about $60,000; when completed, it will have two three-bedroom flats and one one-bedroom in the basement. Begun June 4, and worked on every weekend but the Fourth of July and Labor Day holidays, the building is scheduled for completion by Christmas. The units will be sold to families that have been carefully vetted.

Patrick Keen, the minister at Bethel Lutheran and the director and sole staffer of Westside Habitat, estimates that his organization provides six units of "decent housing" on the west side every year. For every unit built or rehabbed here, they are also committed to providing the funding for one unit in the third world--a much smaller sum, naturally, than it takes to build or rehab housing in the United States. So far, money has gone to Haiti, Zaire, Costa Rica, the Philippines, and India.

Pat Keen has a graying beard and hair that rises from a high, slanting forehead and continues its line upward. He wears the kind of glasses that turn dark in sunlight and clear indoors and a newish denim jacket with the collar turned carefully under. When he returns from an errand--he was picking up a red "torpedo" kerosene heater to provide a little more heat inside the building--a cry goes up among the volunteers: "Hey, Pat's here!" Bounding from his van, he makes an exuberant entrance, flourishing a piece of paper. "Here it is--our building permit!" Everyone cheers.

Keen seems to be everywhere, exhorting, praising, advising, quoting Fuller: "You know what Millard says: 'When we build a building, we put love in the mortar joints.'" When lunch is announced--a pile of sandwiches in baggies, carrot and celery sticks, tubes of potato chips, bottles of pop, homemade brownies, and store-bought cookies, all provided by the folks in Western Springs--he leads his flock in singing a grace I haven't heard since my Girl Scout days:

Oh, the Lord is good to me, and so I thank the Lord,

For giving me the things I need, the sun, the rain, and the apple seed.

The Lord is good to me.

He tacks on an "amen" and a couple of lines of "Let us break bread together on our knees," and then the mostly thirtysomething crowd tucks in, sitting in the sunlight on the new back porch and stairs.

Keen is a man with an evangelical flair and fervor, a man who is used to using words and gestures and sheer force of personality to convince the dubious. Standing in the plasterless dining room of the first-floor apartment, asked how he can hope to make any real difference with just six housing units a year, he launches into an impassioned sermon for a congregation of one:

"Our focus is not on numbers. It's not quantity, it's quality. We're affecting people's lives here. There's millions of dollars in government money spent on housing every year, but nothing is done to affect people's lives. Nothing is done to change the way they see themselves and their futures. Having ownership makes a difference. When people are restricted to a renter's mentality for years and years, they don't realize they have to put effort into upkeep.

"When we finish this project, we will have one more house on the tax roll, and another three families will have a decent place to live. Instead of bulldozers, there's new life."

He points to the house just to the east, only a couple of feet away across the gangway. "See those new windows? Those weren't here a couple of months ago. The people in that house put those in when they saw what we were doing here. Their backyard used to be hip-deep in weeds; now they've cleared it out. The house next door to the west has a new back porch. The house behind us has a new back porch. The people on this block now have hope. You see, they do have an honest, yearning desire to create a better life for themselves."

If there is white liberal guilt here, it is not the kind that can be assuaged with a quick swipe of the checkbook. The volunteers are doing hard, dirty work, and they are doing it cheerfully and without theorizing. Why? "Boredom," replies Tom Conforti, a 22-year-old from Western Springs. "I came for the food," confides his coreligionist Catherine Price, a clean-cut blond who looks like a refugee from a church youth group.

Cindy Lewis, an accountant, is in charge of rustling up volunteers for Saint Paul's. She is young, petite, and energetic; she wears her chestnut-brown hair in curling bangs and a ponytail. She is dressed in layers for warmth, with a yellow turtleneck under a sweatshirt under a soiled red quilted vest. She wears jeans and sneakers and a yellow bandanna tied at her neck; a Walkman peeks out from beneath the vest. She got involved in Habitat "when we had a series of forums at Saint Paul's to look at the issues in the city, and how Christians could confront them, I wanted to get involved in something hands-on rather than just form a committee.

"I've been learning to do things. The first day, we weeded out the yard. It was really neat, getting to know the people from Western Springs. We had to tear out the old radiators. We just basically took sledgehammers and tore them out." She giggles: "When we dumped them over the side, we pulled out the porch. Then we had to figure out how to reattach it.

"The inside of the house, the first day we came, had the most god-awful wallpaper you've ever seen, this blue flocked stuff. There was wallpaper in every room in the house. We stripped all the wallpaper--there were two to six layers, with paint in between some of the layers--which easily took the month of June to do. We've been taking the woodwork off the walls and stripping the paint. There's a lot of unskilled labor--which enables a lot of people to come out and do different things.

"I've never done any of this stuff. I'm learning carpentry--I helped putting the stairs in [on the back porch]. It's been fun to learn, although for every four nails I put in I had to take one out because I missed the stud. I've learned to use an electric drill, an electric screwdriver. The people who already know how to do these things are really patient.

"It's given me and everyone else an opportunity to meet people. We're getting an opportunity to help solve a problem that exists in the city--the lack of affordable housing--in a way that the person who receives it won't just be getting it for free. They have to put something into it.

"I'm from Moline originally; I've been in Chicago for four years. I've spent that entire four years never seeing anything of Chicago except downtown and Lincoln Park. I've read in the papers about housing problems, problems with the schools, problems with gangs--here, you can look around and see why the problems exist. It's been a real eye-opener for me, to learn that the whole world is not Lincoln Park. I grew up in basic suburban-type America, and the concept of people who don't have money--it's something I never understood."

Lewis admits that the streetscape around her makes her "a little nervous, and I probably wouldn't just come around here on my own. But the people around here know what we're doing. The neighbors look out for us.

"It seems to me like this is the way we're going to make America better--the haves helping the have-nots, not through government grants but through the private sector."

John Corrin is a 63-year-old retired accountant who has spent all but a couple of Saturdays since June 4 at 4051 W. Monroe, "and I'm trying to free up my time to spend a week here." He grew up in Wichita, Kansas, and the native twang still colors his speech: "My father was in the building trades--and during the Depression years, if you didn't know how to do it yourself, you didn't do it. So I learned a lot of different things from him, and I've been doing them off and on during my life."

A modest man ("I don't know why you want to talk to me," he says), Corrin has been one of the chief teachers of the enthusiastic but unskilled workers on the project. "I'm principally a painter, but in rehabbing there's just no place you stop.

"I used to work in the Loop; I'd ride the train in from Downer's Grove and I'd think, 'Look at that problem,' going through the west side. In Kansas City, a fellow in the ghetto part there would paint houses for free--people would buy the paint and tell him when they were ready, and he'd do it. I felt like I should be doing something like that."

This project is still looking for an electrician, someone Keen hopes will work at reduced rates, but it has picked up a heating contractor. He's the president of a heating and air-conditioning company in Hoffman Estates who doesn't want his name used in the paper, saying "I'm not doing this for publicity." But he doesn't mind discussing his decision to provide all the heating work for the three-flat, labor and material, for free. It's a gift whose value he estimates at $5,000.

"I first found out about Habitat when Jimmy Carter was in town. I thought it was a good thing; we have to do what we can to help people. So when Pat Keen called and asked me what the price would be to do the heating, I told him, 'That's easy--there is no price.' And I have men working for me who feel the same way, so they're donating their labor.

"I didn't do this for [Christian principles]; I go to church, but that isn't it. I don't have any political reasons, either. I just feel we should help people if we can help people."

Habitat for Humanity has its problems like funding, which is perennially short. Another is burnout in volunteers, who spend weeks and sometimes months on projects. "Sure there's burnout," says Keen jocularly. "I'm burned out. Some people at Grace Episcopal in Oak Park [which cosponsored a project last year] didn't want to hear the word Habitat after the project was completed. It's a tremendous sacrifice."

"I have a certain amount of disillusionment in the follow-through," says a former volunteer, talking about that stage after the family has moved in and Habitat must check to see that they are maintaining the property and putting in their 100 hours elsewhere. "Once you get past that initial good fuzzy feeling, there's so much to do in follow-through--not something paternalistic, but with local people doing it. That [support] is not always there. The family part [keeping the families involved] is inconsistent.

"Another piece of it is providing the staff to effectively use the skills of volunteers to get a job done--there's no construction supervisor, and there should be. You have to have construction skills to get things done and not use people up in the first week. There is a burnout factor there, that people can burn out real quickly if they have to assume roles that should be done by paid staff. You can't just expect [the necessary skilled volunteers] to work 40 hours a week."

"That's a valid criticism," says Roger Hommes, a seven-year Habitat veteran, former teacher, and head of the new South Region Habitat. "You're walking a real tightrope act, using volunteers. You talk about turnaround time in the construction business, from the time you start it until the family moves in. In the business, you want to keep it short. But if you use volunteers, it immediately stretches your turnaround time so extensively, you find yourselves doing it on weekends for six, seven, eight, or nine months. We've got to find some sort of balance between tradesmen and volunteer groups."

Part of Hommes's solution in his new region, which encompasses some of the poorest towns in the Chicago area--Robbins, Dixmoor, Ford Heights--is to enlist schools to help. "We've got three colleges lined up to oversee the [mostly administrative] follow-through: South Suburban College in South Holland, Governors State University in Park Forest, and Prairie State, just north of Chicago Heights. Trinity College in Palos Heights may develop their own chapter of Habitat for Humanity. And we've got high schools with building programs that are going to help."

That will mean a steady stream of young, eager volunteers. "Classes going into our projects during the week," Hommes says, "means that work is being done during the week, and not just on the weekend." He adds that the whole of these groups is greater than the sum of the parts. "We're challenging a segment of that society that had not normally been involved.

"When people harp about what government can't do, I say, 'Well, you can complain about it--or you can do something.'"

There are no eligible families working at the site on this particular Saturday, which Pat Keen admits is not an unusual situation. Still, he insists, "They have to work their hours before they move into their unit--history tells us that if they don't work it ahead of time, they don't work it. But they have to have that spirit of helping, what we call 'an appropriate spirit.'"

They also have to be poor enough--at or below the poverty line--and psychologically prepared to own and maintain property. "We still have to go through the same kind of procedure a regular lending institution does. We don't use government funds, so we're not restricted by their guidelines." After a preliminary interview, prospective buyers are checked out in their present homes, "to see what their current living situation is. One criterion is need--and some people need badder than others. How they maintain their current unit will give us some idea of how they will take care of their new one. Working on their unit is important: when you've worked on a wall, you're careful of who puts a hand on that wall. The renter's mentality is, 'That's the landlord's problem, not my problem.' But the landlord doesn't necessarily live there--you have to live there."

Beatrice Riddley is the articulate, determined owner of one unit of a 1987 Habitat for Humanity project, the two-flat at 4150 W. Washington. She and her husband, Roosevelt, and four children (now 16, 13, 10, and 8) have lived in their new home for a year; they moved in last November 8. She has only good things to say about Habitat and its people. "It's been working out wonderful, it's been beautiful to have this home. I hope everybody Habitat builds a home for enjoys the luxury of privacy as much as I have--and it is a luxury." Their 13-year-old is handicapped, and a yard to play in has been a real boon.

The Riddleys, both 35, have had a hard time financially in the last year because Roosevelt has been unemployed; the family has had to live on Beatrice's pay as factory worker. Keen and his board have been patient about getting paid; the money has always come in, but frequently not on the first of the month, "We haven't been hassled. We needed that time, and Habitat gave us that time. They been so patient with us. You rent from normal people--your rent is due on that day, they want it in there.

"Landlords don't want childrens--but Habitat is going all the way out to build beautiful homes for childrens. It's gotta be a blessing from God, 'cause nobody else is building houses for children."

When her building was being rehabbed, Riddley gained a reputation as a good worker, especially when it came to stripping wood; she was quick and efficient, and she did it well. Having to work Saturdays at the factory, however, has put her behind in working on the current project, but she says her 16-year-old son, Gwain, has been pitching in.

Not surprisingly, Beatrice Riddley says she would recommend involvement in Habitat for Humanity to others-on both sides of the fence. "I really would. There's a lot of rich peoples out there that could afford to help if they only knew about it, if they became aware of it. There's so many peoples need a home, and not just a home, but a decent home where their childrens won't be getting thrown out. I promise you, their money won't be goin' down the drain.

"The peoples themselves have to have great need--not just want to have a house, but they have to have determination. And they have to want to help other peoples get a home.

"For me and my family it's been a long struggle, and Habitat's been so patient with us. They allows you time if you're willing to struggle for that time."

The worst criticism anyone offers of Habitat for Humanity is that it works slowly, on a small scale, and not especially efficiently. Even the burned-out former volunteer who criticized the organization is generally positive: "Habitat has the potential to mesh those with with those without. It's the kind of experience which can have a real impact on the lives of all involved. There's a real sense of partnership, which can work quite well. And it does provide a way to take nothing and turn it into something--to take an empty shell of a house and turn it not only into a thing of utility but a thing of beauty as well."

"The whole thrust of the Habitat project is very admirable, very real-world," says Thurber Stowell, a retired architect from First Congregational who is donating the building plans for 4051 W. Monroe. "They insist on people paying their way to the extent that they're able to. It's an alternative to the welfare state." Stowell, who planned to vote for Dukakis, calls himself "a political moderate. A great number of our church members are definitely Republican, and probably conservative--but this is devoid of political motivations, I thin: it's beyond that."

Says Beatrice Riddley, "It's filled a lot of holes in my life."

"I think it's going to work," says Roger Hommes. "I think it's probably one of the neatest, brightest stories in America."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/John Sundlof.

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