For the poor -- hope, schooling, independence

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

KIMI Gray is the essence of congeniality as she walks through the housing project in the corner of northeast Washington she calls home. Most everyone she passes says, ``Hi, Miss Kimi,'' and she replies with a great big smile, ``Hi, baby, how you doin'?'' But her eye is always watching, watching who's around and what they're doing. ``Why aren't you working?'' she yells to two teen-agers she recognizes. And she makes sure she gets a satisfactory response.

Kimi Gray is a powerhouse among the 3,000 people who live in the Kenilworth Courts and Parkside Addition housing projects. She's receiving national recognition for her long list of accomplishments since 1974 -- the students she's persuaded to go to college, the reforms she has fought for in the project's management, the new attitude she has inspired among tenants, the money she has attracted for renovation.

She has been lauded by such congressmen as Rep. Jack Kemp of New York, who are holding her up as an example of what an individual can do to make changes that seem to elude the federal government.

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And with the power of her testimony in Congress, a bill has been introduced that would provide seed money for housing projects seeking to emulate what has been done at Kenilworth-Parkside.

But she still remains Kimi Gray, a woman of low income who has managed against the odds to scrape together a decent life for herself. When she arrived at Kenilworth in 1966, she had five children to feed, no job, and no husband. Taking advantage of a government program, however, she graduated from a business college, and she has worked most of the time since then with the District of Columbia's Department of Recreation as a youth counselor.

She is, she says, just ``a big dreamer.'' She takes little of the credit for herself, emphasizing that the improvements in Kenilworth-Parkside have come from the tenants who have been willing to work for change.

Kenilworth is in the part of Washington tourists never see. Across the Anacostia River from the marble monuments and museums, away from even the run-down charm of the 19th-century town houses where many of Washington's poor blacks live, Kenilworth and the smaller Parkside are stark 1959-vintage, low-rise housing projects. Here the chronic unemployed and welfare mothers were warehoused, raising their children with little hope of breaking the poverty cycle.

``Kenilworth was one of the worst public housing projects,'' Ms. Gray recalls. ``The crime rate was up and rapidly increasing. Vandalism was bad. Trash was everywhere. The high school dropout rate was high. Police were afraid to come in here, because kids would throw rocks at their cars.

``There was often no heat and hot water,'' she says. ``The project's management was more concerned with bricks and mortar than with people. City Hall was insensitive to our needs.''

By 1974, only two of the project's residents had been to college. But one day, she says, three high school students told her they wanted to go to college. Would she tell them how to go about it? She said she didn't know, and she told them to come back a week later to give her a chance to do some research.

The next week, the three teens came back, and they brought five others. Gray had learned that many black colleges were seeking recruits so they could keep their federal funding. She was able to help the students fill out applications and look for scholarships.

Seventeen Kenilworth-Parkside students headed for college that year. Four years later, when nine of them graduated, the residents threw them a ceremony and party to celebrate.

``In this city, if you don't have at least two years of college, you don't get a job,'' says Gray. ``If a high school student tells me he doesn't need to go to college, I ask him what he wants to have when he's 25. When he tells me he wants a house and a family and to move his mamma out of the project, I ask him if he knows how much that costs and what kind of job it takes to get that kind of money. Then I show him what kind of education it takes to get that kind of job,'' she said, ``and I take him aro und to colleges and just let him talk to the other kids. That's usually all it takes.''

Now 582 project residents have gone to college. And many of them have gone solely because Kimi Gray was there to encourage them.

``Back in 1974, I had dropped out of high school,'' says Michael Price, one of those students. ``One day she [Gray] asked me what I wanted to do. I said I wanted to go back to school. She helped me get my GED [graduate equivalency degree], and then she helped me get into Paine College in Augusta. I didn't do too good there, and I came back. But I told her I wanted to try again. She helped me get into Elizabeth City State University and then into the Howard University School of Architecture. She was alwa ys there to help me.''

Having those students going to college began to have an effect on the housing project, Gray says. Coming back on vacation, they would see the trash and rodents, the crime and graffiti. They wanted to do something about it.

In 1981, Gray was able to get a $78,000 grant from the District of Columbia to hire all of the college graduates to clean up the project. When the residents saw what they could accomplish, they called a meeting and resolved to take over the project's management.

After obtaining permission from the mayor, the residents set up their own association, elected Gray president, and went through a year of training before they were allowed to take charge.

Residents were hired to fill as many jobs as possible. Residents voted on what they wanted, and an employment office, a health clinic, and a social service office were created. A new engineer was hired who was able to fix the hot water and heating systems. Now when something breaks, it is fixed quickly. Trash is picked up six times a week, and the rodents have been eradicated.

Crime and vandalism are down, and residents are fighting drug trafficking by cooperating with police.

One of the telling signs of success of their work is the amount of money the association collects in rent, which is charged according to income. Before the residents took over management, 85 percent of the project's residents were on welfare, according to the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprises, which has studied the neighborhood. Now 35 percent are. For the first time in the project's history, the amount of money collected for rent covers the cost of operation, according to the center. The dis trict government is now making money on Kenilworth-Parkside.

Gray has been able to win a $13.5 million federal grant to rehabilitate the project's 464 housing units. Not content with letting a contractor do the work, the residents decided to form a joint-venture company with a contractor, so many residents could be employed.

That joint-venture company will be using another $1.8 million grant to build 20 town houses. Michael Price, the man Kimi Gray encouraged to go to college, will be the architect.

And when the renovation is finished, what next?

``We want to buy our homes,'' she says. ``We want ownership, so that those of us who have stayed so long and worked so hard can enjoy the fruits of our labor.''

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