By Mary Otto
Kandis Jacobs, her husband Omar Martin and their three children moved to their apartment in December. On Christmas morning, the kids flew out of their beds to open the presents under the Christmas tree. After the days of joblessness, the homeless shelter and the transitional program, everything about that morning was stunning, magical, blessed.
“God is good,” says Jacobs, summing it up.
Now they are starting a new year and a new life. They cherish everything about their three-bedroom apartment on Wayne Place in Southeast Washington: the comfy couch and beds; the bathroom they have all to themselves; the washer and dryer and the refrigerator decorated with a portrait of President Obama colored by their oldest son, Kamari, 6; the new stove where Jacobs cooks her tasty dinners.
And beyond the apartment’s fresh white walls, they cherish their neighbors who also live in the small neat brick building. They have developed strong bonds participating in a sweat-equity program that has given homeless families the chance to renovate a once-rundown property and make it home.
They are working toward a future they had trouble imagining when things seemed to be at their worst. For Jacobs and Martin, the troubles started back in 2009 when Martin lost his job as a security guard. The family eventually ended up at DC General, the old hospital the city uses as its homeless shelter, sleeping in a former hospital room and struggling to take care of other necessities with a monthly Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) check.
“It felt like the world was coming to an end,” Martin admits.
Yet it was there at the shelter that they found about the sweat equity pilot project, part of a larger effort by the city to move families out of homelessness and rethink a welfare program where some beneficiaries have languished for years. Central to the push is intensive casework geared toward getting poor parents the skills and work experience they need to move off of welfare and support their families.
But when Martin originally looked into the sweat equity pilot program he was wary.
It was the pay that worried him most, only about $12.50 an hour. At his old job, as a guard, he had earned twice that much. This seemed like a step down in the world. But his wife told him they should give it a try.
“Baby we’re in the shelter,” Jacobs told him. “Something is better than nothing.”
And the program turned out to offer other benefits as well. Once the sweat equity team had finished the work on the old city-owned apartment building, participants would have a chance to live there for three years. They would pay 30 percent of their incomes as rent. The money would be placed into an escrow account, to be matched three to one by the city. After three years, they would have a nest egg they could use to buy a home of their own, to go back to school or start a business.
“My beautiful wife is the reason that we are in the program,” says Martin, with a smile that takes in Jacobs on the couch, and their two younger children, Omar, 2, and Samarje, 3, who clamber and play about the living room and kitchen. “If I hadn’t listened to her we wouldn’t be here now.”
It took months of very hard work to get the place into shape, however. The building was in a sorry state. Martin and the rest of the crew, nine other men plus two women, had to gut the building and reconstruct it from the sewer pipes up. They regularly prayed to keep their courage up.
Now that they are in their homes, the members of the sweat equity crew have moved on to renovate a city-owned women’s shelter. They are continuing to hone their construction skills. They are taking courses. And they are steadily saving for the future.
Martin says he is looking forward to the day when he doesn’t need the $602 monthly TANF check anymore. But he won’t forget the lessons he and his family learned surviving on welfare.
“You put yourself last, put God first and the children second,” sums up Martin. “They eat before you eat because that’s what it’s really for.”
What will he and his family do when the three years with the sweat equity program come to an end?o How do they plan to invest their nest egg?
“The American Dream is to purchase a home,” says Martin carefully. “My dream is to purchase a home and a business.”
He and a friend and neighbor from the sweat equity project, Michael Jackson, talk a lot about pooling their resources and perhaps buying and renovating another small apartment building, making homes for other families who need a new start in life.
Jackson, who, as if on cue, pops his head through Martin’s front door on this snowy morning, agrees.
They will have their own company.
“This is the CEO,” he says, pointing to Martin. “And I am the CFO.”
They are quite the pair when they get together, working and dreaming, and making one another laugh.
“My brother and I: We shared the same visions,” says Jackson. “We’re too much alike.”
Or as Martin sees it, different but compatible.
“We’re like peanut butter and jelly.”
They share a deep faith but beyond that, Martin admires the way Jackson is raising his kids by himself. Jackson and his son and his daughter slept in a van for a while before they ended up at DC General. They all made the best of it. But the thing the children, Erin, 9 and Michael Jr. missed most during their sojourn through homelessness was their dad’s wonderful cooking.
When they got moved in upstairs here on Wayne Place, the kids wanted a gingerbread house for Christmas, so Jackson built one for them.
“That man is Betty Crocker!” brags Martin, grateful to have a friend like Jackson, a fellow traveller taking the journey alongside him step by step. That’s how to rebuild your life, he says.
“It’s just like a home,” says Martin. “You’ve got to have the foundation first. Then everything else comes into place.”