The place: a Northeast street where drug dealers took over buildings. The mission: Take them back.
Armed with paintbrushes, saws and determination yesterday, more than 75 volunteers from the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington worked through the morning chill building a patio, painting hallways and rooms and clearing debris around three buildings on P Street NE.
In honor of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King, the event brought together residents from around the region to renovate the buildings for use as a homeless shelter and community center.
“We’re trying to bring volunteers into different parts of the community that need help,” said Merrill Warschoff, co-chairman of the community service committee of the federation. “There is such a great need. We are here to participate firsthand in trying to heal communities.”
So the volunteers dug out dirt and laid down recycled bricks to create a patio. Others sawed through steel to fit counters into an industrial kitchen, or painted hallways and rooms peach, apple green and sky blue.
The buildings currently house a children’s program and a church, but volunteers hope that a shelter for women and children including residential quarters, a computer and career center, a soup kitchen and day care and after-school programs will be operational sometime this year.
To finish the three buildings, however, the federation still needs to collect more contributions for heating and air conditioning systems and for doors and windows, says Richard Feldman, project director and member of the D.C. Jewish Community Center’s Behrend Builders program, which helps community groups with repairs and renovations.
So far, the transformation has been miraculous, say those who remember when the building was controlled by the P Street Crew, a drug gang.
“We cleared hundreds of tires, needles and even four engine blocks from the back yard,” said Mr. Feldman. “It’s amazing, the craziness that has gone on here. And it’s amazing how it has changed.”
Evidence of destruction remain, however. The bricks in front of building four and five sag because drug dealers removed structural support beams and created holes to be able to drive cars through the building. Those two buildings will have to be demolished.
An old yellow truck driven through the buildings also remains rusting in the back yard, and an alley next door has been commandeered by a crafty entrepreneur to house hubcaps and tires, stolen by the homeless and then pawned to his start-up business.
Still, Mr. Feldman gets a lot of help from the middle school students who volunteer on Wednesdays, the community groups who help him on weekends and the international students visiting Washington during the summer.
“Change comes slowly, but it comes,” he said.
One volunteer who has been working on the project for years is a homeless man who asked that his name not be used. He recalled how 10 years ago, he wouldn’t walk on this street after midnight.
“There would be two guys asking you what you wanted and a third with a gun telling you to give it up,” he said.
“Before, you couldn’t get away from the drugs. Now it is rare. The transformation is great for the community.”
He said he is working on the project because he believes in helping those who have fallen on hard times.
“Some people do need a second chance,” he said.