From his neighbor’s porch, L.F. Harbin, 81, sat and squinted into the late October sun at the workers scrambling in and out of his house in southwest Memphis.
A sheet of plywood was being carried in the back door, teenagers from a local Scout Troop were washing down plastic furniture on the curb and in the front room, another half-dozen teens from Church of the Holy Communion were painting the front room and soon would be headed down the short hall outside the bathroom.
A large hole gapes open at the base of the toilet, exposing the ground and pipes and the home to rodents and cold. The bathtub has shifted in its mooring and is sagging. Shafts of light pour in where it once met the floor.
The kitchen floor has given way in spots and the ceiling has rotted through in a crumble of deteriorating plaster and wood.
“I didn’t know they were going to do all this,” Harbin says, his voice soft against the noise of the traffic that streams back and forth on the four-lane East Mallory. “I thought they were just going to do some carpentry.”
Harbin, brother of a church security officer Buford Harbin, has lived in the two-bedroom home since he was 36. Several years ago, he tried to apply for help with the home repairs, which were estimated at $39,000.
“Nobody’s got that much money,” Harbin says. “You won’t get nothing if they don’t take your application.”
His MLGW bill, which covers water, two electric heaters in the winter, a couple of burners on the stove, water heater and a handful of lights is $207 a month. The furnace doesn’t work.
“It’s cold except when I am sleeping,” said Harbin, who worked on the loading dock at the John Morrell meat packing plant “until it closed up on me in '82.”
About five other jobs ended the same way, leaving Harbin and thousands of other Memphis factory workers out of work or underemployed over the last 40 years.
Harbin, who now sees only in one eye, asked his brother for help a few months ago.
“I mentioned it to Matthew (Arehart),” said Buford. “It was all God’s idea. See what the Lord does.”
Sunday, after a quick lunch at church, about 20 youth and young adults, including three members of his Carter Gammill’s Boy Scout Troop, showed up at the house with hand tools, paint and brushes, a generator, lumber, buckets, brooms, drop cloths and cleaning supplies.
Within three hours, skilled volunteer carpenters had covered the holes in the kitchen walls and floor with plywood. Matthew reinforced the foundation below the bathtub. The rest of the crew painted, moved furniture out to dust and vacuum, washed and swept the floors and moved all the furniture back in.
“It’s really sad,” said Daniel Russell, 13. “It’s sad he is having to live in this kind of condition. It’s just terrible. I’m glad he has a better place to live now.”
For Daniel and several of his peers, the project was a dose of Memphis they had never seen.
“I’ve never thought about it. We take everything we have for granted,” he said.
Avery Holdeman, 13, saw Harbin when she arrived. He didn’t speak.
“I think he is hanging by a thread,” she said. “I think he has hope, but he needs more help.”
Research by the National Center for Healthy Housing in 2013 showed Memphis had a larger percentage of unhealthy or substandard housing than any of the 45 metro areas it studied. About 35,700 units in the nine-county metro area have "severe" or "moderate" structural problems that include water leaks, and rodent and insect infestations.
“It was neat to see the interaction between the young adults and the youth and the Boy Scouts and the neighbors,” said the Reverend Hester Mathes. “They came by and talked to us.
“You know, the level of participation falls right in with the millennials. They want to do service projects, like More than A Meal. We had a better turnout for this than we have for some of the social events.”
By 4 p.m., Beverly Russell was on the neighbor’s porch, extending her hand to Harbin and telling him how much the congregation loves his brother.
“Do you know how your brother ends every conversation he has with us,” she asked. “He says, ‘You have a blessed day.’ Do you know what a neat thing that is? I feel so blessed for knowing him.”