The new homeless
Kenneth and Stacy Dowdy can't afford a place to live in Charlotte. Neither can Charles DuPree. But if you passed them on the street, you might not recognize them for what they are: Homeless.
They are among a growing number of newly homeless who don't fit old stereotypes. Many of them work regular jobs, or did until recently, nursing the sick, caring for other people's children, vacuuming offices, driving cabs.
They lived in apartments or houses, surviving paycheck to paycheck. One thing went wrong in this bad economy, and they didn't have far to fall before they ended up on the street.
Or in the cab of a pickup, where the Dowdys slept one night, treating it like a camping adventure for the sake of their young son.
Ten years ago, advocates warned that Charlotte needed more low-income housing for the working poor. Task forces convened, and city leaders promised action. A lot has been accomplished, but not nearly enough. After a decade of unprecedented prosperity, when Charlotte was better positioned to take on the problem, the city now finds itself unprepared.
“There are pockets of folks energized around their efforts,” said Bert Green, executive director of Habitat for Humanity of Charlotte. “But there's no one organization that's trying to pull all these groups together and say: ‘This is our strategic plan.' We know what we need to do. I don't think there's a political will out there to do it.”
At least 5,000 people, likely as many as 8,000, are homeless every night. Mothers, fathers, the elderly and, the most staggering figure of all: 3,500 children in public schools, plus an untold number of their younger siblings. Homeless in Charlotte.
Many of the adults work, but don't earn enough to pay for an apartment or house. Their lives, as they move from by-the-week motels to emergency shelters and sometimes to the streets, are consumed in a desperate struggle to find a decent place to live.
Losing it all, bit by bit
As the economy began to falter last summer, the Dowdys' problems escalated. Stacy Dowdy said they fell behind on their $675-a-month rent because her fares as a taxi driver dropped off. Her husband, who had worked as a nightclub bouncer and truck driver, couldn't find a job.
“Charlotte is almost impossible to live in,” Stacy Dowdy said. “It's almost like they're charging high-end prices for middle class homes. Three-fourths of our income would go to rent and utilities. The utilities would almost get cut off because we'd have to choose between paying the bills and getting food.”
They were evicted from the apartment and moved into a motel, driving their son across town to school. Stacy gave away her cats, pawned her wedding band and sold her blood to buy food. They stored their furniture and other belongings, but ran out of money to pay the storage facility and, two weeks before Christmas, the company auctioned off everything.
They next sought refuge at the Salvation Army shelter and discovered only Stacy and their son could stay there. Kenneth would have to sleep apart from them at the Uptown Shelter.
After all their heartbreak, they refused to give up the one thing still intact: Their family.
They slept in a borrowed pickup. It was late January, a rainy night, but not too cold. On the floor rested one of the few possessions Stacy Dowdy had kept out of storage: an urn with her mother's ashes.
A friend invited them to move in with her family in Gaston County, four adults and two children sharing a two-bedroom apartment. Stacy found a temporary clerical job with a company she had worked for nine years ago. She sold blood one last time, to reimburse her friend for driving her places, to pay for a cake for her son's 9th birthday and to buy makeup to wear to work.
She hoped to save up for a car first, then a place to live. But now, after three months at her friend's place, she and Kenneth realize they've stayed too long, and it's time to move on.
“I feel like I am stuck in some kind of time warp that keeps sending me back to the same time I was in a week ago,” Stacy Dowdy said. She has no idea where they will go. But she tries to stay positive. “We're luckier than some people,” she said. “We're healthy and we have each other, and the only thing we can do is move forward.”
Lack of leadership
In the late 1980s, former President Jimmy Carter came to build Habitat for Humanity houses and said Charlotte had the potential “to become the first community in the whole United States to succeed in eliminating poverty housing.”
Habitat has built 825 homes. The nonprofit Housing Partnership has constructed and renovated hundreds more, and owns or manages about 1,100 affordable rental units. Despite those efforts and many others, the numbers of homeless in Charlotte kept growing even before the recession.
Chris Wolf, a former investment banker, helped draft a 10-year plan to end homelessness that has never been funded. The plan would reduce homelessness the way Atlanta and Asheville have, by putting people into affordable housing with support services. “Charlotte has been focused on its growth and its success,” Wolf said. “We just don't have the consolidated leadership to take on homelessness.”
As a result:
There were 1,125 fewer affordable housing units in 2007 for the very poor than there were in 2001, a study by developer John Crosland found. That's because 3,201 affordable housing units were demolished, he said, and only 2,076 new units built.
Around 7,000 families are on Charlotte Housing Authority waiting lists for housing.
Demand is so high, Charlotte now needs more than 15,000 units that rent for $499 a month or less. In three years, the city will need nearly 17,000 units.
The city's $67 million housing bond program has not helped as many poor people as advocates hoped, and several publicly funded nonprofit corporations failed to build dozens of houses they promised.
“I don't think homelessness is ignored,” said Jennifer Roberts, county commissioners chair. “I think the challenge is we have let developers have free rein and haven't worked well with them enough to try to increase housing stock, to make progress fast enough…. I don't think people have been silent about it, but we need to get to the next level.”
Sheila McGregor had no idea about this downside to Charlotte when she arrived last fall.
She had lived 18 years in Greensboro, where Charlotte had a reputation as a prosperous city. After McGregor lost her job as a certified nursing assistant, a friend told her about a nurse's job here. McGregor caught a ride to Charlotte in November, mistakenly thinking she could stay with the friend.
She and her 12-year-old daughter spent a month and a half at the Salvation Army's uptown shelter before moving into Hall House, a temporary shelter that opened in January for women and children.
“I never expected this,” said McGregor, who is 49 and divorced. “It wasn't drug-related or because of alcohol or domestic violence. Mine was just pure and simple mismanagement and not being prepared. I've always worked. I thought I had a pretty good job.”
McGregor eventually got the job she came for, as a certified nursing assistant at Presbyterian Hospital. Four months later, she signed a lease on a 2-bedroom house, and she moved in a couple of weeks ago.
The federal government recommends spending no more than 30 percent of adjusted gross income on housing, including rent and utilities. Based on the government's guidelines, McGregor should spend around $546 a month. The house she's renting costs $600 a month so she is looking for a second job.
“I thought homeless people were the ones standing on the corner with a sign,” she said. “The people I met at Hall House were everyday people just like I was.”
It can happen, she now realizes, to anyone.
A lack of affordable housing is only one reason people become homeless. Other reasons often apply, including poverty, mental illness, alcohol and drug addictions, domestic violence, health issues, disabilities, a criminal record.
Most homeless people need more than a house, said Darren Ash, who directs WISH, a nonprofit that provides social services, as well as rent subsidies, to the working poor.
“A city cannot build its way out of the problem,” Ash said. “When you have 100,000 residents who make $8 an hour, they're living on the edge every day regardless. We believe affordable housing is not the sole answer. You have to have supportive services that come with it. This population is way too fragile. They will be back on the street.”
With Charlotte's unemployment rate at 11.4 percent in March, one of the worst on record, some people are having trouble affording even the cost of emergency shelters.
Charles DuPree lost his house to foreclosure last year after what he described as a bad business deal, and said he slept on a loading dock before moving into the Uptown Shelter in the fall. He said he is months behind on the $30-a-week he is supposed to pay.
If you saw DuPree in his suit and tie, standing outside the courthouse, you might mistake him for a lawyer. DuPree, who is 57, is studying online to become a paralegal, volunteering at Hands Law Office and working part-time at a warehouse for $7.25 an hour.
After eight months at the overcrowded shelter, he said he's been told he'll have to leave next week.
DuPree is philosophical about his predicament: “I'm not wishing anybody bad times, but I think you're going to see a lot of people who don't have a drug history, who don't have alcohol problems, who simply don't have the funds to maintain their lifestyle. This whole homeless thing is going to swell.”
The Salvation Army, which once prided itself on never turning anyone away, sought emergency help from three churches this winter to house 77 extra women, and still the agency turned away as many as 10 women every night.
“It feels like the shelter is becoming a sort of permanent housing,” said Deronda Metz, the Salvation Army's director of social services. “Shelters are supposed to be where people come in and out. The problem with the continuum is there aren't enough places for them to go to.”
When working isn't enough
A single parent with two children in Mecklenburg County must make $3,479 a month to pay for necessities, according to the 2008 N.C. Living Income Standard. Even people working $2 above minimum wage earn only $1,482 a month.
The $2,000 shortfall is, for many, insurmountable.
Tanya Johnson, a single mother, worked two jobs at fast-food restaurants. Then she got pregnant. She worked through the first two hours of labor and returned to Quiznos two days later, but quit her nighttime job at Wendy's to stay home with her newborn. Without the second income, she could not afford her rent. She and her children moved in with her mother, but after a few months the landlord ordered them out.
That was November. Johnson and her children continued to eat and shower at her mother's house, but when bedtime approached, they retreated to her van. She gave her older children “writing assignments” to occupy them and ran the engine all night to keep them warm. She slept upright in the driver's seat, with her children sprawled across the back seats. In the morning, she sent the oldest to school, left the youngest with her mother and drove to Quiznos where she earns $7.50 an hour as a cashier, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.
“I stay happy for the kids,” she said after a month of living that way, but there was a flatness to her voice, and the kids kept asking when they could sleep again in a home.
That day came early this year when A Child's Place, a nonprofit that aids homeless children, gave Johnson $400 toward a deposit on a rental house.
Johnson, who is 33, smiled as she talked about her good fortune, and you could hear her relief. She finally had the one thing most in Charlotte take for granted: A place to live.