‘I lost everything’: Well-known community activist asks for help after North Philly house fire

Recognized for decades of anti-violence and criminal justice work, Wayne Jacobs is now scrambling for a home.

Wayne Jacobs in 2017 at an X-Offenders meeting

Wayne Jacobs in 2017 at an X-Offenders meeting

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY
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A house fire has left Philadelphia activist Wayne Jacobs temporarily homeless and fighting to get back on his feet. Luckily, the well-known criminal justice activist is no stranger to new chapters.

The 71-year-old spent much of his early life in and out of jail during what he called his “first career as a criminal.” In 1997, after coming home from his last stint in prison, he turned toward a career in his community. He launched a grassroots organization that helps formerly incarcerated people get on their feet, fighting for criminal justice reform and fighting to combat gun violence.

“Wayne was a pioneer,” said Reuben Jones, a formerly incarcerated community organizer who leads the group Frontline Dads. “He was doing criminal justice reform way before it was sexy.”

This month, Jacobs found himself starting over once again after a fire ripped through his North Philadelphia home shortly after sunrise.

“I was woken up by the smoke and the heat,” he said.

Coughing and panicking, Jacobs ran to the back room where his 20-month-old son usually sleeps. His child and girlfriend had left the house earlier that morning. When he looked downstairs, flames and smoke rose up the staircase. So the elderly Jacobs climbed out the back window, dangled his body down, and used a wire to break his fall, propelling himself into the vacant lot next door.

He would end up in the hospital with bruised ribs and compromised lungs from smoke inhalation, but he was lucky to make it out alive.

Now, he has scarcely a belonging to his name.

“I lost everything,” Jacobs said. “My plan was to go to PennDOT today because I don’t even have an ID anymore.”

The Philadelphia Fire Department confirmed the blaze. Firefighters were dispatched shortly after 6 a.m. on July 3, arriving to “heavy fire” shooting out of a two-story rowhouse. It took 17 minutes to get the blaze under control, and the house was left with extensive damage.

The case remains under investigation. Jacobs said the fire marshall told him the blaze ignited in the vestibule on the first floor. Regardless, his path forward is bleak: Jacobs didn’t have homeowners insurance, as he stopped paying the bill years back due to tight finances.

“Activists don’t make money,” said Jacobs, who relies on social security income and an occasional check from his advocacy work. “I had to make a decision. Do I pay this bill or that bill? I had been in the house for 20 years.”

He said his girlfriend and young son are living day to day in hotels as they figure out their next steps. The Red Cross gave Jacobs $500 for emergency housing after the fire, which he said only bought him a few nights at the Days Inn. Jacobs’ friends — including fellow activists and elected officials — are stepping up to help his family rebuild.

When he heard of Jacobs’ harrowing escape from the house fire, Jones put a callout on social media asking for donations. People sent cash. Someone offered their home to him and his family. Others offered to buy clothes. Members of the Philadelphia Anti-Drug/Anti-Violence Network rallied their supporters in Jacobs’ name as well.

“The community has stepped up for Wayne in a big way,” Jones said. “It’s amazing that that’s what it takes — but people step in times of crisis.”

Anti-violence advocate who helped ‘ban the box’

Described as eccentric, relentless and passionate about helping others, Jacobs’ career may not have left him in strong financial shape, but he’s made plenty of friends along the way.

Scott Charles, a gun violence educator and trauma outreach coordinator for Temple University Hospital, recalled Jacobs hounding him at his office to start a medical training program to teach people how to treat gunshot wounds in the streets. Jacobs said he once applied a tourniquet to a twenty-something young man’s leg on the stoop of his now fire-ravaged house.

“Wayne called my office desk, and said ‘people in my neighborhood are getting shot and a lot of of us have to just stand around and watch them die,'” Charles said. “It was a crazy idea, at first. But he was so persistent and he was so animated…He was a pain in my ass about it.”

But Charles helped make it happen. The Fighting Chance program launched in 2015, which has since taught combat medical techniques to thousands of residents over the years.

Jacobs co-founded X-Offenders for Community Empowerment, a grassroots group that aims to curb recidivism and help formerly incarcerated people assimilate back into life. Through the group, Jacobs estimates he has helped more than 50 people through the pardon process, and hosted droves of criminal record expungement clinics.

In the last decade, Jacobs also had a hand on local criminal justice reform policy, helping craft “ban the box” legislation in Philadelphia that prevents employers from considering criminal records in the hiring process.

He’s no stranger to politics. They animate him as much as reform and public safety. Jones, the fellow activist, recalls Jacobs meeting a national advocacy group in Philly, and started the meeting by telling them: “Listen, if you take any money from the Koch Brothers, I can’t eff with you. We can’t do no business.”

Many Democratic pols name Jacobs as a supporter. The well-connected activist has campaigned for numerous officials, from city councilmembers to District Attorney Larry Krasner. The DA would send Jacobs to talk to ward leaders on the 2017 campaign trail, Jacobs recalled: “I’d flip the whole room. When I got up and finished speaking, they were all Krasner supporters.”

In fact, he’s reconnected with several politicians since the fire. He said he told Council President Darrell Clarke and City Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson that he needs a house from the city —  with a deed, if possible.

A free house seems unlikely, but Jacobs’ political allies have shown support in other ways.

In a statement, Councilmember Johnson called Jacobs “a strong and humble man who has been fighting for Philadelphians for more than 40 years,” and urged Philadelphians to chip in for the family’s recovery.

Jacobs does not have a GoFundMe page, and is instead asking people to donate to his Cash App.

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