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Thieves steal Christmas from Habitat for Humanity families

LAST SATURDAY, William Harding's brother asked the sidewalk crowd to lay their hands on the wall of the house William was about to move into.

LAST SATURDAY, William Harding's brother asked the sidewalk crowd to lay their hands on the wall of the house William was about to move into.

And then he said a prayer.

"We ask that you minister to William and permeate this home with your presence, and that you have it your way in this home, Lord," he said.

Well, amen to that. But may God also watch over the neighborhood that Harding now calls home. Thanks to low-life thieves and a Trump-loving vandal, the block needs divine intervention.

Harding's new house is part of Habitat for Humanity Philadelphia's 21-home Diamond Park development at 16th and Fontain streets. It's Habitat's largest project to date; its first five families were to take ownership by Christmas.

Harding and another family have moved into their 1,100-square-foot, three-bedroom homes. But the deadline for the remaining families is in jeopardy.

On Halloween night, thieves stole $20,000 worth of tools and building materials from a locked on-site storage container. Philly police are investigating.

"Neighbors heard noise, but it was Halloween, and they thought it was kids," says Corinne O'Connell, Habitat's associate executive director.

When workers arrived early the next day, table and miter saws, compressors, power drills, tile cutters, dozens of hand tools, miles of wire - all were gone.

"This has been a massive hit for us. We have literally been cleaned out of the tools we need to get families into homes by the holidays," says O'Connell. "To say we're disheartened is an understatement. We're Habitat, for God's sake! Who steals from Habitat?"

The same jerks who make construction-site theft a billion-dollar-industry, says the National Crime Information Bureau.

Habitat is filing insurance claims for the stolen equipment, but reimbursement could take months. For now, Diamond Park's workers and volunteers are limping by with borrowed or donated tools. About $5,900 has come in from Good Samaritans.

But last Friday, that didn't make the task of Habitat construction supervisor George Buckman any easier.

Overnight, a vandal had carved "Trump 2016" into two big squares of still-drying sidewalk cement. It would've cost Habitat $1,000 to break up the pavement and re-pour concrete. So Buckman was on his hands and knees using a screwdriver to flatten and feather the edges of the Trump scrawl. It wasn't working.

He would've used an electric cement grinder. But it, too, had been stolen. Luckily, Antonio Cruz, president of Tri State Building Corp., a Habitat sub-contractor, arrived with a grinder, and the men were able to Make the Sidewalk Great Again.

Habitat deserves so much better than what it has put up with these last few weeks. Among nonprofits that do God's work for people who could use a little mercy, Habitat has long stood out.

To qualify for a new home, Habitat clients perform 350 hours of sweat equity on Habitat projects. They swing hammers, hang drywall and shoot nail guns right alongside Habitat construction employees and dogged volunteers like John Keenan, 70. He's a retired electrical engineer who spends three to four days a week on Habitat projects.

"I've been very fortunate in my life," says Keenan, who has helped wire two dozen homes in the six years he's been donating his talents to Habitat. "It's so satisfying to work with the families."

"Of the theft," he says, "it's discouraging. No one's getting rich at Habitat. This isn't a commercial developer. It's a lot of good people helping good families who don't want anything for free."

It's a cliche, but Habitat is one of those not-a-handout-but-a-hand-up organizations. After clients have finished their 350 hours, Habitat sells them a new house at no profit and finances their no-interest mortgages.

Harding's mortgage is for 30 years, a stretch he could barely fathom at Saturday's dedication.

"I'm excited and anxious," said Harding, 35, as the crowd munched on snacks and toured his new nest. "I've always lived in an apartment, where you call the landlord if something goes wrong. Now it's on me."

He was also nervous. He's new to the neighborhood and had heard about the theft. It made him worry about his own property.

"I'm definitely going to look into a security system," he said.

O'Connell shared with me a photo that a neighbor surreptitiously took of the "Trump 2016" vandal after he completed his handiwork. The photo of the alleged perp shows a shirtless male, who the neighbor says lives in nearby off-campus Temple University housing. O'Connell has given the photo and address of the vandal to Philly and Temple police.

I wondered, looking at Mr. Shirtless, if he had any idea that two good men had to work very hard to get rid of that sidewalk graffiti. If he did, might he visit the site and apologize? Or, better, volunteer?

You never know until you ask, right?

So I grabbed a soft pretzel from the snack table inside Harding's home, then rang all the doorbells on the alleged vandal's apartment building.

No one answered. But it was a beautiful autumn day, warm enough to go shirtless.

Maybe the guy was out for a run, pounding someone else's pavement.

To donate to Habitat for Humanity Philadelphia, go to

215-854-2217 @RonniePhilly