When Jackson and other homeless welfare recipients first stepped into the red-brick building in Southeast Washington a year and a half ago, they found gutted apartments with cobwebs and broken appliances. Their job: Make it a place they would be proud to call home.
District officials launched Sweat Equity, an ambitious experiment aimed at helping the chronically poor, with the idea that participants would not only gain the skills needed to lessen their dependency on the city’s tightening welfare program but also be able to move into the renovated buildings.
At the time, officials called it an unprecedented local effort, a program that could provide a model for reducing homelessness, public assistance rolls and the number of abandoned buildings across Washington. A program that could answer both a philosophical and practical question: Can handing a person a hammer instead of a handout help them tear down more than just physical walls?
Now the construction is complete, and where two eyesores once stood on Wayne Place, there are two energy-efficient buildings. District officials will soon gather on a sidewalk there and cut a ribbon in celebration. But even as participants enjoy apartments with matching leather-trimmed sofas, the city has no plans to continue the costly and complicated program that, in the end, showed that some successes can’t be measured.
It was his first day of work, and Jackson was late. District officials had given him and another man, Omar Martin, the wrong time to arrive at one of the Wayne Place buildings. Jackson hadn’t even made it to the front door when a sweat-drenched man in a once-white T-shirt leaned out a third-floor window and taunted him for his tardiness.
“What, ya scared to get dirty?” the man yelled.
As Jackson tells it, he was more scared of the alternative — not working and continuing to live with his 7- and 8-year-old in a D.C. homeless shelter.
“I just want a refrigerator and a stove,” the single father said at the time. “My kids want me to cook. They want to be able to go to the refrigerator and get their own drink.”
Before city officials chose the people who would participate in the Sweat Equity program, they required applicants to write an essay. Jackson says he wrote three.
“Not only did I have an opportunity to go back to work,” says Jackson, 44, who at one point delivered groceries for Whole Foods. “I had an opportunity to show my kids what it takes to be successful. You have to have drive.”
He was among the first to move into a three-bedroom apartment in the building in November. On a recent weekday, he shows off his favorite aspects: lights that dim with a touch of a controller on the wall, a spacious bathroom with water-efficient appliances, and a washer and dryer that spare him a walk to the laundromat.