The Rev. Mike Hilson, pastor of New Life Wesleyan Church in White Plains, said he and a lot of volunteers are taking on the challenge to provide water and sewer to as many needy families in Charles County, particularly in the Nanjemoy area, as is humanly possible within the next 10 years.
‘‘It came to our attention a while back that there are houses in Charles County with no running water or sewer. We felt that we could help play a role in fixing that,” he said. ‘‘It makes no sense that in Charles County in 2007 there are houses with no water and sewer. It is my conviction that taking care of the community’s needs is the work of the church. We hope that other churches will participate with us so we’ll be able to do all the work largely out of the Christian community.”
The Living Water program is starting off slowly to ensure that it is done properly, Hilson said.
‘‘We wanted to do this quietly,” he said. ‘‘Eventually, we’ll need the community’s help. Right now, we’re in the development stage. We’re trying to figure out what to do and how to do it.”
Hilson said the church has already met with other service organizations in the county to identify how many houses need indoor plumbing, where they are located and which ones can reasonably be retrofitted for water and sewer.
So far, the reception from those organizations and the Charles County commissioners has been overwhelming, Hilson said.
‘‘We’ve gotten a lot of positive reaction from county leaders,” he said. ‘‘We’ve found the county to be very open to this discussion. The county commissioners I’ve talked to have shown support for this.”
Charles County commissioners’ President F. Wayne Cooper (D) said the extent of the problem is huge, and the church’s willingness to try to better the living conditions of the needy will be a tremendous effort.
‘‘I’m very pleased to see that New Life church is getting involved with this problem,” he said, adding that there are hundreds substandard homes in Charles County that do not have running water or indoor plumbing.
Cooper said the county will help out as much as possible to identify the homes that need indoor plumbing and coordinate with the Charles County Health Department to have percolation tests done in preparation for the installation of septic systems.
It is going to be a difficult task because many of the houses are either rental properties or land that has been inherited with no clear indication of who actually owns the property, said Debra Jones, a member of the Charles County Homeless and Emergency Shelter Committee, who chairs the committee’s Nanjemoy Area Housing subcommittee.
Property titles are important so homeowners can obtain federal and state grant funding and low-income loans, she said.
‘‘There’s got to be a clear title to the property because often a lien will be put on the property to ensure that the money is used for what it is supposed to be used for,” she said. ‘‘It’s like a can of worms. You pull on one thing and you find that it’s connected to a lot of other things.”
Another problem is that many of the substandard homes are rental properties, said Commissioner Samuel N. Graves Jr. (D).
‘‘We don’t want to fix up property for someone who has the means to do it,” he said. ‘‘There are landlords who rent substandard housing. If we fix their houses up they’ll either up the rent or force the tenants out so they can rent to somebody else.”
The commissioners do not strictly enforce the county’s livability code because the regulations would force the needy out of substandard rental housing, Jones said.
‘‘This has got to be handled in the right way and properly organized so the program will actually be effective,” she said. ‘‘It’s fairly complex. If it were easy and simple it would have been done years ago. It’s like pulling a string that keeps coming and coming and coming. We’ve got to take this one step at a time. The last thing that we want to do is displace people who are living in very poor conditions when that is all that they have.”
Hilson said that is why he is seeking the help of service organizations in the county to help launch the Living Water program.
‘‘It’s a larger problem than what we expected,” he said. ‘‘It’s going to take a while to get started.”
A large number of volunteers, including plumbers, contractors, carpenters, electricians, well drillers and septic tank installers, have already said they are willing to pitch in for the effort, Hilson said.
‘‘We have numerous volunteers that are capable to take care of all aspects of this project,” he said. ‘‘The issue facing us now is dealing with existing organizations to help identify properties that legitimately need this type of help ... Our goal is to work in partnership with existing local, state and nonprofit organizations so we don’t recreate services that are already out there.”
The congregation at New Life church is also willing to lend a hand, the pastor said.
‘‘The response from the congregation has been just wonderful,” he said. ‘‘It’s the most energy I’ve seen since the 2002 tornado.”
The Charles County Department of Social Services will be the contact agency for people who want to find out if they qualify for the program, Hilson said.
Ricky Aubel is serving as New Life’s executive director of operations for the Living Water program. Hilson said Aubel, who is the owner of a local construction company, is up to the challenge.
‘‘He’s a very knowledgeable man; he has a lot of experience that we’ll lean on,” he said.
‘‘It is a need that we’ve seen, and we’re just trying to take care of it,” Aubel said. ‘‘It’s a big elephant, but we’ll try to get rid of it one bite at a time.”
The deplorable conditions that many families, including those with young children, must live in every day is a clear message from God that the church needs to step in and try to right the situation, Hilson said.
‘‘What I found when I went down to Nanjemoy are families who were struggling to survive in an environment that was chilling,” he said. ‘‘The conditions are deplorable, but at the same time the families are doing their absolute best. They need some help down there. It is absolutely part of our faith to help where we can, and while this is a big problem, we serve a God who is plenty big enough to help us deal with it.”
E-mail Nancy Bromley McConaty at firstname.lastname@example.org.