No one in the grimy assemblage of concrete-block buildings that is the East Gate Gardens public housing project in Southeast Washington seemed to know much about the Wilson family. They were, according to some of their neighbors, just another poor, black, female-headed household trying to hold on in tough times.
But Thursday afternoon, as more than two dozen city housing workers and U.S. marshals prepared to evict 42-year-old Betty Wilson, her four children and her asthmatic grandson from their home in the project near Benning Road SE, compassion moved an impoverished community to a display of generosity.
In less than 30 minutes, $370 was raised. Some of it literally rained from the sky, as people threw wrinkled dollar bills from their apartment windows down onto the scraggly, dusty lawns below. The total reached $535 in about two hours, and the Wilsons got a reprieve from eviction, city officials said.
"I was so devastated I didn't know what to do," said Betty Wilson's 24-year-old daughter, Sheila. "I just turned to the people for help, and they helped. It was a blessing."
East Gate residents, maintenance workers and even most members of the crew sent to evict the family reached into their pockets and gave, Sheila Wilson said. Some could only come up with change, while a white-haired neighbor who asked not to be identified gave $100.
"It was so wonderful," Sheila Wilson said yesterday as she and her 9-year-old son, James Cabbell, relaxed in their apartment. "I didn't even know people like that existed. We didn't have anywhere to go."
The Wilsons, whose rent for the six-bedroom apartment is $184 a month, had had a run of misfortune, she said. Her mother, Betty Wilson, who could not be reached for comment yesterday, has been ill for the past year, she said. She added that bills for a new washer and dryer and television were stretching thin the family's income, which comes solely from public assistance.
Sheila Wilson said she had to leave her job as a nursing assistant at D.C. General Hospital this fall when her son began suffering asthma attacks.
According to East Gate manager Willie B. Perry, the Wilsons owed $766.36 in back rent. They were scheduled to become the 41st family evicted from public housing since a speed-up of evictions in Washington started last spring, housing officials said.
Many East Gate residents said it was Sheila Wilson's tearful pleas that stalled the marshals and brought the donations from neighbors. "She just cried and cried and the money came," her son James said.
Alfred Holliman, who has worked for the District's Department of Housing and Community Development for 16 years, said he hadn't seen such a display of common concern for people who were all but strangers since his days in Vietnam, when soldiers had shown similar regard for one another.
"When that girl came out crying, it just worked on everybody," Holliman said. "When some of the guys moved the freezer out of Wilson's apartment , she came out crying, 'All I need is $300.'
"In about 20 to 30 minutes someone yelled 'I got $10,' somebody else said 'I got $10,' and that started the ball rolling."
Perry said money seemed to come from every direction, sometimes so fast that it was difficult for him to count it. Shortly after 4 p.m., the Wilsons' had paid their back rent, and Perry said their rent is being reduced because of a recent loss of income to the family.
"I gave up my last $25," said neighbor Cynthia Williams, "but it doesn't matter. It was just like Christmas, it was just like a miracle.