JUDGING by some recent headlines - ``Public Grows Weary of Homeless Problem,'' ``Charities Say Donations Down'' - it seems that compassion fatigue has settled over the land like bitter stove ash on the festive holiday snow. Mayor Ray Flynn joins those passing out blankets and sandwiches to the drifters and the deranged on the streets of Boston. Heroes like my brother Dan quietly spend their Thanksgivings serving hot meals at a shelter. But most of us hurry by on the other side, avoiding eye contact with the individual reminder of a problem that seems huge and growing. Take for example the 8 million Americans living in substandard housing. (``Substandard'' is the bureaucratic word for wretched.) There are hundreds of thousands of families in shacks and tenements, often without plumbing or electricity. Conditions like that spawn despair and abuse and eventually homelessness. Is there anything a person of relative affluence can do? Indeed there is, but first some background.
Back in the mid-1960s, Millard Fuller, a 29-year-old millionaire law school student, started his own marketing business and proceeded to hustle like a demon. When his wife Linda finally said ``it's me or the job,'' he realized that his particular fast track was headed for oblivion.
So the Fullers - looking to their religious roots - literally sold all they had to give to the poor and started over. With their four children, they spent several years in Africa working on a housing project sponsored by their church. When they got back home to Georgia, they and some friends founded Habitat for Humanity with the modest goal of ``eliminating poverty housing from the world.''
The idea is this: Use volunteer labor and donated money and materials to help families build their own housing, which they pay for with no-interest loans from a revolving ``fund for humanity.'' The homes are modest; three bedrooms and about 1,000 square feet. But they are sturdy and comfortable, and they're much better than what the families have been used to. What's more, pride of ownership often generates pride in community and the eagerness to help others. And sometimes it's not just two-by-fours and sheetrock and copper pipe that are being fitted together but families that had been undermined by hopelessness.
The program started out one house at a time, but in recent years - thanks in part to publicity generated by the support of Rosalynn and Jimmy Carter - it has grown considerably. There are now more than 500 affiliated projects in North America and Australia and more than 100 projects in 28 developing countries. In all, more than 7,000 homes have been built, and they're now going up at the rate of 12 per day - or as Millard Fuller likes to say, ``another house every hour of the daylight hours of every day.''
The goal for 1994 is 10,000 new homes per year and twice that many by the year 2000. A cynic would say this is far from wiping out the housing problem. But it's still a lot better than doing nothing. Just ask Jo-Ann and Kenneth Charlton of Webster, N.H., whose new home meant the family of four could be reunited. Or Willie Franklin whose family of seven has exchanged roaches and rats and high rent bills for a new home in Orlando, Fla.
Habitat's motto is ``Capital, Not Charity,'' which is why supply-side godfather Jack Kemp, now Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, is as enthusiastic about it as liberals like the Carters. President Bush recently cited the Charlotte, N.C., Habitat group (which has built 100 homes) as one of his ``daily points of light.''
The organization, with headquarters in Americus, Ga. describes itself as an ``ecumenical, grass-roots Christian ministry,'' but synagogues, businesses, and secular service groups enthusiastically join up. Fuller's ``theology of the hammer'' comes down to this: ``We may disagree on all sorts of things - baptism, communion, what night to have prayer meeting, and how the preacher should dress. But, thank God, we can agree on a nail and the use of the hammer as an instrument to manifest God's love.'' To which one can only add ``Amen.''