The Carter campaign rolled into Sandtown in West Baltimore yesterday, seeking not votes but volunteers to help house the poor.
Residents waved from rowhouse windows as former President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, walked past boarded-up properties on North Gilmor Street that they will help rebuild in June as volunteers for Habitat for Humanity. The nonprofit, self-help group plans to rehab 100 houses in the blighted Sandtown neighborhood over the next five years.
"This is the last time you'll see me on this street with a necktie or dress shoes," the 67-year-old Mr. Carter told a friendly crowd on an empty corner lot.
"The next time I come back with Rosalynn we'll be carpenters working side by side with families that are going to have a decent house perhaps for the first time."
The Carters, Habitat for Humanity's most famous volunteers, spend a week each year on a "blitz-building" program. This June, the Jimmy Carter Work Project will help rehab 10 vacant houses in Sandtown and build 10 new houses in Washington.
"This will be a drop in the bucket for us to come here," Mr. Carter told an earlier luncheon audience of 1,200 at the Hyatt Regency. "But these drops in the bucket are what can make a flood tide of change."
In 16 years, the Georgia-based Habitat for Humanity has mushroomed into a sophisticated, international project to provide affordable homes for the poor. The first house was completed in 1978 in San Antonio, Texas, said a Habitat spokeswoman in Georgia.
Since then, 13,000 houses have been built or renovated around the world -- in Brazil, Guatemala, India, the Philippines, Uganda, for example. The organization has just started programs in Hungary and Poland.
Fifteen houses were renovated in Baltimore under Habitat's auspices during the past decade in the inner city neighborhoods of East Baltimore Midway, Greenmount-West, Coldstream-Homestead-Montebello and Sandtown-Winchester.
Habitat was started in 1976 in Americus, Ga., by Millard Fuller, a millionaire who gave away his money and became a missionary. Mr. Fuller, who formed the group as an ecumenical Christian ministry, isstill president of Habitat.
He founded it on the simple principle of using privately donated labor, material and money to build and renovate decent houses for poor people who will repay their low mortgages without interest. The new homeowners contribute "sweat equity" by helping to build their own houses.
Nearly 700 Habitat affiliate organizations have sprung up around the nation, many led by churches and other grass-roots organizations. Often, projects are completed with the help of several organizations and private corporations.
Developer James W. Rouse, whose Enterprise Foundation is helping finance Habitat's efforts in Sandtown, did some impromptu fund raising at yesterday's luncheon. He said later that the Weinberg Foundation pledged $30,000 on the spot, among other gifts.
Mr. Carter stressed that "Habitat is not a charity organization. That's not the way to address the plight of deprived families, to be Santa Claus and to hand them gifts as though they were inferior people. They must have power to make decisions in their own lives."
The Carter visit, complete with a marching band and Secret Service agents, made both Maryland politicians and Sandtown residents nostalgic for a Democrat in the White House.
"Ah, I wish I had a president who cared about cities again," mused Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.
As the Carters walked down North Gilmor Street, one woman turned to a friend and said, "There goes Jimmy Carter. I forgot what he looked like."
But by the time the visit was over, residents were touting him for president.
"We do need a president like him," said Dawn Moore, 20. "He vTC was trying to help poor people. Everything has gone downhill."
Mr. Carter steered clear of election-year politics. But he did say the next president should have a "deep commitment to better housing for people in need. That's something we've been missing now for 12 years."
If you want to help
Habitat for Humanity is recruiting 500 volunteers for the Jimmy Carter Work Project June 15-20 in Baltimore's Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood and in Washington. Skilled construction workers, unskilled volunteers and office workers are needed before, during and after the June work week.
For more information, call Sandtown Habitat for Humanity at 669-3309 or the Washington Jimmy Carter Work Project at (202) 347-3077 during business hours.