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Homeless Improvement 

A Richmond man says he can solve the plight of the homeless — with a hammer, some faith and a few million dollars.

The owner of a computer network and communications business, Demetri is one of those guys who love to peruse the self-improvement section of the bookstore. He says once a year he treats himself to a seminar on "some aspect of growth" — whether personal, professional or spiritual. "I always wanted to get better," he says.

In January he attended one such retreat for men at St. Michael's Catholic Church, a sort of brainstorming session in which participants help each other think of ways to achieve their biggest goals. Demetri threw out a huge one.

"I want to end homelessness," he announced.

Demetri later prayed about it, and says God reminded him that homelessness is fundamentally about houses. Something clicked. His knack for real-estate investing and his desire to help people without homes seemed to fit together perfectly.

The plan? Demetri would buy tax-delinquent homes at auction (in the city, bidding on such homes often starts at $30,000 or less), teach homeless people how to renovate the properties and help them rent or eventually buy the houses.

Would it work? He asked (both in person and in online forums like those at www.homeless.org) some homeless people what they thought of the idea. There he started talking online with a 41-year-old man named Anthony, who lived in San Francisco.

Conversations with Anthony revealed he'd spent a difficult childhood in foster care and never graduated from high school, but he was proud of the odd jobs he had worked. Demetri ordered a background check on him and found he had served 10 years in prison for a burglary, but hadn't been in trouble for decades. He struck Demetri as a man who sincerely wanted to make something of himself. So he made him an offer.

Come here to Richmond, Demetri told Anthony, and I'll teach you a trade and you can live in my house. Within a few days, Demetri picked him up at the bus station and set Anthony up in a ground-floor bedroom. For about $35,000, he bought a house at a tax auction for them to tackle.

Wasn't he afraid Anthony would steal or turn out not to be who he said he was? Demetri acknowledges that such thoughts crossed his mind, but "I tried not to let my fears stop me," he says. He had to take a chance on Anthony.

"He became a member of the family," Demetri says. Demetri, his wife, his 13-year-old daughter and a teenage exhange student also lived in the house.

In September, he took on another protégé, a man named Phillip T. Moore who was referred to him by Richmond shelter agency CARITAS. Moore, 45, a recovering addict who had moved to Richmond from Chicago, had just begun renting his own place on Idlewood Avenue and even had a savings account.

But he'd recently lost his job. "Man, I'm desperate," he told Demetri, who paid his bills and hired him to work on the house under renovation.

For Christmas, Demetri paid for Moore and Anthony to visit their families in Chicago and Cleveland, respectively. When they came back, he told them both he could no longer afford to employ them.

Moore was dismayed. "It was like he cut me loose," he says. Moore is now working on a construction job in Jackson Ward, but despite five interviews, he's had little luck finding a more permanent position.

Anthony "never did get over it," Demetri says. "Man, why you hatin' on me?" he asked Demetri. He refused to leave the house, and in the end, Demetri says, he gave him a choice: Take $100 and get a hotel for a few nights while he looked for a place to live, or the police would remove him. Anthony, who had found another job, took the latter option. Demetri hasn't heard from him in about two weeks.

Nevertheless, he says, "I'm not discouraged. No." Demetri says he succeeded in teaching Anthony the construction skills he needed. "He's got that leg up, so now it's up to him to continue it," Demetri says.

Now, Demetri is launching his own nonprofit, Wings of Humanity. The organization will buy dilapidated properties, he says, teach homeless people and then employ them. He envisions Wings of Humanity also running a laundry, a landscaping business, an auto-repair service and more.

Demetri wants to launch Wings of Humanity in a big way. He's asking for contributions of $5 million per year for three years — to create a database of those who are homeless, to launch businesses and to hire a staff of 10 to 20. From there, he says, the nonprofit's real-estate investments and labor revenues would make it self-sufficient.

His ultimate goal, he says, would be to make Wings a one-stop shop for homeless for both housing and employment, eliminating the need for such short-term shelters that CARITAS provides.

"There's a lot of merit to his ideas," says Reggie Gordon, executive director of the William Byrd Community House and former director of Homeward, the city's umbrella organization for homeless services.

However, Gordon says, it's unlikely that a single organization could solve the overall problem of homelessness. Richmond needs to have "a full complement of styles to reach the goal of affordable housing," he says.

Moore says he's excited about the potential of Wings of Humanity and wants to be involved: "Big ideas — OK, great ideas. Where are we going to start?"

Demetri needs to nail down his plans more firmly, Moore says. "It's about having a solid prospectus of what we're really trying to do," he adds.

Demetri intends to do just that. He's holding an open meeting at St. Michael's for anyone who's interested in his plan Feb. 22 at 7 p.m.

"I'm just a guy," Demetri says. "I'm not rich. I haven't even been to college." He doubted himself for a while, he says, and asked God if he was meant to even try.

He says God told him, "You're the guy." S

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