Monday, April 5, 2010

Rebuilding Together Oakland

Decent housing is a basic need for everyone. Habitat for Humanity is a great organization, working to eliminate substandard housing world-wide (BTW, thanks for the build-a-thon donations!) In the U.S., that's largely done through building new homes which are sold to low-income people currently paying too much of their income to rent sub-standard housing.

But a trip around Oakland or pretty much any city will show you a large stock of homes of another sort. These aren't people who are about to lose their homes because of sub-prime mortgages, or who bought something bigger than they can afford, or are paying most of their income for rent. These are people who own their homes, and have worked hard to purchase them. But because of age, illness, and/or income level haven't been able to maintain and improve their homes. That's where Rebuilding Together (RTO) comes in.


Like Habitat, they use mostly volunteers, and homeowners have to qualify for the service. Through the month of April, groups of volunteers descend on the selected homes and work to repair and upgrade them. I volunteered with RTO for the first time on Saturday, and joined a dozen or so others from around the Bay Area to help Mildred, a homeowner in East Oakland. She raised 7 children, most of whom she put through college, too. The home was one of the first in the area, built at least 100 years ago. The family added on to the back in the 1940s, but it's still a small house. Mildred is 83, and suffers from arthritis and other health problems, but she's still active at her church (where she's known as 'the mother of the church' because of her ubiquitous nurturing.) She uses a cane to get around the house, and a mobility chair (RTO put in a wheelchair lift last year) for longer trips.

There's a list of problems with the house, but the first problem was getting in to work on them. Every time any of Mildred's children moved, it was: "Hey mom, can I keep some of my stuff there? I'll get it later." Add to that donations collected for church and the homeless in her neighborhood. Add to that 30+ years of "stuff" from living there. So most of us spent the morning moving stuff from the house and storage in the backyard to 3 piles: (1) keep (2) donate or (3) dumpster. Fortunately several of her children (and one grandchild) were there to help sort through things. Unfortunately some of the stuff was water-damaged, so the dumpster pile was pretty big. But we set aside various items, and several different scrap haulers took at least one and half pickup loads to the scrapyard instead.

very full dumpster

After lunch, we split into different groups. One worked on sorting stuff from the attic; others cleaned out the kitchen and pulled down the water-damaged ceiling; a couple of people demolished the bathroom. The main electrical panel had been updated by RTO, but there were approximately three (3) outlets through the entire house. I worked with a volunteer contractor on installing some new electrical outlets. While he worked with another volunteer to run new wires under the house, I cut holes in the walls for new outlets.

There's still a lot of work to do, but we made good progress on repairing Mildred's home and making it safer and more comfortable for her, too. Rebuilding Together Oakland also works throughout the year with their Safe-At-Home & Energy Efficiency program. As with Habitat, you don't have to be skilled, but if you do have skills that's always a bonus! I'll be volunteering later in April (after the build-a-thon), but I'm not sure if I'll be assigned to Mildred's house or another.

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