The ceilings and floors were falling in and the back wall was falling off of the house at 308 F St. NE, where Rena Jones lived with her daughter, two grandchildren, brother and 93-year-old mother. The sewage drain was clogged, the basement was flooded and the house had been without heat for two years.
A group called "Christmas in April" heard about the Jones family and put the house on a list of more than 56 houses and homeless shelters to be repaired. When a crew of volunteers showed up yesterday to fix the house, Rena Jones couldn't believe her eyes -- and neither could the volunteers.
"I wouldn't say it was dangerous for us to go in there, but it was certainly too dangerous for anybody to live in," said Pierce Jackson, 61, a retired Pepco engineer and a Christmas in April volunteer. "When we visited the house in February, it was snowy and icy and the people were all huddled up in the broad daylight."
The sights were the same at other homes, with webs of frayed electrical extension cords crisscrossing rooms, cooking stoves blackened from use as heaters around the clock, and no smoke alarms. Water pipes, including the city's own water meters, were broken and leaking rusty water.
Although nearly 1,200 volunteers showed up for this annual daylong renovation, the group could not fill all of the requests for help.
"One of the biggest needs now is how to help people keep their homes," said Patty Johnson, executive director of Christmas in April, which was started in Washington in 1983. "There are a lot of elderly people who don't have the strength or skill to make certain repairs, and if you're on a limited income you can't call a plumber."
Rena Jones couldn't afford to call a plumber. Six weeks ago, she lost her job when a company that made potato salad and cole slaw for supermarkets went out of business. She had been a salad maker for 20 years.
Her husband had died 15 years ago, so her 24-year-old daughter, who had two children, moved back home to help her. So did her brother, who was unable to find a job. Together with her mother, who was partially blind, the Jones family struggled to keep a roof over their heads.
Pearl Greene, an area neighborhood advisory commissioner, notified Christmas in April about the Jones family and others who were in need. But Greene had problems convincing her neighbors that there was such a thing as Christmas in April.
"Some people thought that these people were out to take their homes," Greene recalled. "The attitude was 'Nobody does something for nothing.' But when I told them that they didn't have to sign any papers, some of them became convinced."
The volunteers in green T-shirts arrived at 8 a.m. and went to work like elves, installing walls, ceilings, pipes and wires and planting flowers, grass and shrubs.
"Somebody asked me to help, and I said okay," said volunteer Martin Copeland, 34, a pipe fitter for the Washington Gas Light Co.
The volunteers included students from St. Albans and Sidwell Friends schools and lawyers, teachers and construction tradesmen who worked alongside able-bodied homeowners. The crews wore hats from Bruning Paint Co., which donated 1,500 gallons of paint, and they used lumber and equipment donated by the Hechinger Co. and the North American Housing Corp. They ate food courtesy of the Florida Avenue Grill and the Holy Name Social Services Center, which was the project headquarters.
"In my line of work, performing a social service in the line of duty has a lot of negative aspects," said Michael Helwig, a D.C. police homicide detective. "I've been a volunteer since the beginning. It's positive reinforcement and a way to give something back to the community."
What the group had given to Rena Jones and her family was hard for her to put into words. But when Kevin, her 10-year-old grandson, saw a new boiler being installed in the house, he knew just what to say.
"What I missed most was heat," he said. "From now on, Christmas will be warm."