A hammer, not a handout: City program allows poor to build their future residences
By Theresa Vargas,
Neapolean Granderson walks into a first-floor apartment in a Southeast Washington building. Cobwebs drip from the ceiling. Holes pock the stained walls. A toilet lay on its side, broken and useless. ¶ Granderson smiles, proudly. ¶ “This is it,” he says. Apartment 101, where he once lived and where, depending on how he performs in a District pilot program, he might soon again call home. ¶ In what District officials describe as an unprecedented effort, several city agencies and nonprofit groups have come together to create a program that, if successful, would reduce homelessness, public assistance rolls and the number of abandoned buildings across Washington. A program that, if successful, could prove a model for easing people off welfare at a time when the city is ending its practice of limitless benefits. ¶ The program, Sweat Equity, is based on a simple formula: Take individuals who have been homeless and on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and give them jobs refurbishing vacant city buildings, where they can then live for two years rent-controlled. In other words, hand them a hammer, not a handout.
But whether the program proves successful depends on a complex set of factors: the ability of D.C. agencies to work seamlessly together, the willingness of outside contractors to employ novice workers and the drive of the participants, many of whom have spotty work histories. This time, they can’t just want it. They’ll have to sweat for it.
“I think we’ve done a good job creating a community dependent on benefits and handouts,” says David Ross, an official with the D.C. Department of Human Services. “And now that those are available no more, we need to do a better job of helping customers become self-sufficient.”
According to the most recent counts, more than 17,000 city families receive TANF benefits. There are also about 858 homeless families in Washington and 70 vacant city-owned buildings, more than half in Southeast.
In February, Ross got orders to make the program happen. By May, Granderson and 13 other participants were sitting in a classroom, learning how to read blueprints. Now, stop by two buildings on Wayne Place SE any day of the week and there they are in yellow vests, tearing down walls, hauling bricks and seeing past the rubble of what was and imagining what might be.
They know that just maybe, depending on whether they make it to the end of the program, they are rebuilding more than their future homes.
* * *
Granderson, whose chubby round cheeks make him look younger than 36, is the first to arrive at work on a July day when the temperature makes every movement a strain. It’s even hotter inside the three-level red brick building where the insulation spills from the ceiling like a torn stuffed animal.
Within a few hours, Granderson is sitting on the concrete steps outside the building. Sweat drips down his face. He has just thrown up.
“Go home,” Dino Padula, who owns the construction company handling the project, tells him. Padula says one benefit of the program is that participants learn how much work goes into refurbishing buildings — and, once they move in, will take better care of the property.
“Your job is here,” Padula reassures him. “Don’t worry.”
But Granderson doesn’t want to leave. He doesn’t want to lose any hours. The job provides a living wage, and he knows the rules: Come late two times and you’re gone. He doesn’t know how going home early will reflect on him.
“I need the money,” he says. “I gotta take care of my family. That’s what I’m here for.”
Granderson, who grew up in Washington, has three daughters, ages 13, 10 and 8, whom he cares for on his own. (A fourth lives with her mother.) He says the family was doing okay until 2005, the year he lost his job manning an information kiosk on the Mall.
“That’s when everything started going downhill,” he recalls, sitting on a love seat one night with his daughters in their city-subsidized apartment in Northeast. They know this story well.
Granderson struggled to find a job with a schedule that would allow him to also take care of the girls. Popeyes didn’t work out. And the odd day-labor job didn’t pay well enough. In 2006, Granderson went on TANF, and in 2010, the family moved into a homeless shelter for six weeks, giving up a dog and a fish in the process.
“It was rough,” Granderson says. “I used to tell them, ‘We’re going to the hotel tonight.’ ”
His oldest daughter, Monae, a ballerina-figured girl, is much more diplomatic about it. “It wasn’t good, but it wasn’t bad,” she says in a quiet voice.
At home, Monae, an eighth-grader who is involved in track and cheerleading, helps her father take care of the other two: Monia, who is in fifth grade, and Monaia, who is in third. After a recent night of spaghetti leftovers, she makes sure they wash their plastic bowls, and about once a week, she braids their hair, knowing Granderson can do only twists.
Granderson says the biggest draw of the program was the apartment. At their current place, the ceiling in one bedroom has caved in four times, forcing the girls to share a room, and endless streams of ants have made themselves comfortable. It was just a bonus, he says, that the program picked the same building where he and Monae lived about nine years ago. At that time, it had only one bedroom. When construction is done, it will have three.
As Monae nudges her younger sister to take a bath, she says she keeps track of the building’s progress through photos on Granderson’s cellphone. “I feel good because my father has a job,” she says. “He takes care of us. He does everything for us.”
The morning he fell sick, Granderson eventually listened to the boss and went home. But the next morning, with temperatures even higher, he returned to work. As usual, he was the first one there.
* * *
The crew has been working on the Wayne Place apartments for three weeks when across the city, 18 officials gather to discuss the program’s progress. It’s the first time they are all meeting together.
“I think what excites me about Sweat Equity,” David Ross tells the group, “is it’s the first time we’ve worked in such a collaborative manner. We’ve set aside all the acronyms and department names and have come together. It’s truly a community effort.”
The program was conceived under former DHS director Clarence H. Carter, but it required the commitment of five other organizations — the Department of Employment Services, the Department of Real Estate Services, the United Planning Organization, the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness and Capital Area Asset Builders — to be born.
Everyone at the table knows what’s at stake. They have all, to some degree, worked with the population the program targets.
They know that for some TANF recipients the barriers to work are obdurate: lack of education, child-care needs, substance abuse. And for others, they are more fluid: low self-esteem, domestic instability, fear of the unknown.
The program is designed to wean participants from their TANF benefits. They work the maximum hours their benefits allow, and the hope is that once they grow comfortable with a paycheck, they will choose to go off public assistance. To help them build up savings, a portion of their pay, and later their rent, will go into a special account.
“You can’t just bring someone in to get a job. You have to build them up,” says Gloria Gaskins of United Planning Organization, an anti-poverty agency. She has seen TANF recipients who have sabotaged good jobs for fear of losing their benefits: “They have become so comfortable with it that they think it’s owed to them. The problem is trying to break that trend.”
In 1996, the federal government placed a five-year lifetime limit on participation in TANF but allowed jurisdictions to keep recipients on the rolls longer if they used local funds. Since then, the city has operated on a limitless basis, costing taxpayers an estimated $35 million a year.
This year, that changed. The city began cutting back the benefits of more than 6,400 families who had been on assistance for more than five years. By 2015, their benefits will end.
After the meeting, Gaskins, Ross and a core group of people stay behind. They discuss what Sweat Equity is looking like behind the scenes. The good: Two people have gotten jobs outside the program. The bad: One woman is out because she failed a drug test.
They then draw up a list of questions they plan to ask participants, including:
“What has the impact of your participation in this project made on your family?”
“Where do you see yourself in six months? One year?”
* * *
A few weeks later, Ross is standing at the front of a room where banners on the wall carry such slogans as “Ideas won’t work unless you do” and “If you want your dreams to come true, don’t oversleep.” The Sweat Equity participants are seated at fold-out tables, going through the questions one by one. Several wear their scuffed work boots.
“I’m not stressed no more,” a 49-year-old mother of five tells the group. “I feel better about myself than I did before, because, you know, I’m doing something.”
A few rows away sits a 28-year-old father of three who is the comedian of the group. But when Ross asks about the impact of the program on his family, he is serious. He tells the group: “My son gets to see what a man should be doing — working. I get to show him firsthand.”
At another table sits a father of two who says he wants to get out of the shelter so he can cook for his children, ages 7 and 8. Before getting accepted into the program, the applicants had to write an essay explaining why they wanted to join. He wrote three.
One success of the program that’s already evident is the group’s closeness. They elected a secretary to keep them organized, and they regularly call one another in the morning to make sure everyone gets to work on time. Still, listen to their stories, and it is clear they are driven not only by one another. They are all parents.
Granderson says that if there is a lesson in the program for his daughter it is this: “When you get to be an adult, no one is going to give you anything.”
“I tell them, ‘Don’t be scared of hard work. Try to succeed in whatever,’ ” he says. “I would like to see them go to college, especially this one,” he says, patting Monia on the head that night in his apartment. She smiles up at him. “She’s been on the honor roll since first grade.”
He then reaches for Monae. “I want her to be a lawyer, because she likes to talk,” he says, knowing she would rather work in a salon. “I tell her, ‘Don’t just think about doing hair, think about owning a shop.’ ”
On an afternoon when D.C. Council member Marion Barry and a half-dozen other city officials visit the Wayne Place work site, the group huddles in the background. Granderson, who is wearing a sweat- and dirt-stained T-shirt, is nudged forward first.
He shakes Barry’s hand and explains in two sentences why he is there and why he plans to finish the program.
“Basically, I was looking for a better lifestyle for my kids,” he says. “To show my kids that we do fall down, but we can get up.”