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LIFE IN THE WOODS

Carolina’s growing homeless tent camps are an open secret

Stacy Hamilton needs shelter. Lately she’s been sleeping in the Walmart parking lot with her boyfriend Dave. But Dave’s been missing since the morning. It’s Friday afternoon, and if she can’t find him she’ll sleep in the woods.

She lives by the day; every day is a struggle to survive. She’s not from around here. Addiction, the death of her mother, and a nervous breakdown sent her into a downward spiral. She lost her husband and her kids, ended up in poverty and came to the Salvation Army shelter in Hickory, North Carolina to escape an abusive ex in Winston-Salem.
The Salvation Army was the end of the line; where you live after the fall. It’s where she met Dave. But after 90 days at the homeless shelter you have to wait six months before you can return, and 90 days ain’t enough to get back on your feet.

So Stacy and Dave ended up in a plastic tent in a hollow behind the Golden Corral, not far from the Hilton Garden Inn where Stacy found a housekeeping job for minimum wage. When Dave got a car, the back of the Walmart parking lot became a luxury.

Once the “furniture capital of the world,” Hickory was left behind by the 21st century. The city of 40,000 dominated the industrial economy of North Carolina’s western Piedmont. Now the Wendy’s and Dollar General stores, abandoned properties and empty factories are the main signs of an economy, an ugly contrast against the views of Appalachia in the distance. Hickory and the rural areas around it are overwhelmed by underemployment, heroin, meth, pills, despair, and homelessness. In Hickory the epicenter is Lenoir Rhyne Boulevard, and that’s where I met Stacy, hanging out at the Life House, a day shelter next to the Salvation Army.

According to the North Carolina Coalition to End Homelessness, there were 8,962 homeless in the state in the early months of 2017, and nearly a third had no shelter. Tent cities are an open secret. They’re in Raleigh, and Durham, not far from the nicest neighborhoods of the richest country on earth. And they’re all over Hickory, in the woods behind chain restaurants, in places most people choose not to look. They’re technically illegal. But it’s better than sleeping in a public park, or on the steps of City Hall, and absent trouble they’re usually allowed to stay.

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Momma D, Pops, and their daughter, in their home beneath the tarp in the woods of Hickory, North Carolina. Credit: Maddy Jones 

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Homelessness can Happen to anyone

The New American Homeless

LAST AUGUST, COKETHIA GOODMAN RETURNED HOME FROM WORK TO DISCOVER A TYPED LETTER FROM HER LANDLORD IN THE MAILBOX. SHE FELT A FAMILIAR PANIC AS SHE BEGAN TO READ IT. FOR NEARLY A YEAR, GOODMAN AND HER SIX CHILDREN—TWO OF THEM ADOPTED AFTER BEING ABANDONED AT BIRTH—HAD BEEN LIVING IN A DERELICT BUT FUNCTIONAL THREE-BEDROOM HOUSE IN THE  HISTORICALLY BLACK PEOPLES TOWN NEIGHBORHOOD OF ATLANTA. GOODMAN, WHO IS 50, HAS A RESERVED, VIGILANT DEMEANOR, HER YEARS TRYING TO KEEP THE KIDS OUT OF HARM’S WAY EVIDENT IN HER PERPETUALLY NARROWED EYES. SHE SAW THE RENTAL PROPERTY AS AN ANSWER TO PRAYER. IT WAS IN A RELATIVELY SAFE AREA AND WITHIN WALKING DISTANCE OF THE BARACK AND MICHELLE OBAMA  ACADEMY, THE PUBLIC ELEMENTARY SCHOOL HER YOUNGEST SON AND DAUGHTER ATTENDED. IT WAS ALSO—AT $950 A MONTH, NOT INCLUDING UTILITIES—JUST BARELY AFFORDABLE ON THE $9 HOURLY WAGE SHE EARNED AS A FULL-TIME HOME HEALTH AIDE. GOODMAN HAD FLED AN ABUSIVE MARRIAGE IN 2015, AND SHE WAS ANXIOUS TO GIVE HER FAMILY A MORE STABLE HOME ENVIRONMENT. SHE THOUGHT  THEY’D FINALLY FOUND ONE. AS A LONGTIME RENTER, GOODMAN WAS ACQUAINTED WITH THE CAPRICIOUSNESS OF  ATLANTA’S HOUSING MARKET. SHE KNEW HOW EASILY THE HOUSE COULD SLIP AWAY. SEEKING TO AVOID THIS OUTCOME, SHE ENSURED THAT HER RENT CHECKS  WERE NEVER LATE AND, DESPITE HER EXHAUSTING WORK SCHEDULE, BECAME A STICKLER FOR CLEANLINESS. SO STRONG WAS HER FEAR OF BEING DEEMED A “DIFFICULT”TENANT THAT SHE AVOIDED REQUESTING BASIC REPAIRS. BUT NOW, READING THE LANDLORD’S NOTICE, SHE REALIZED THAT THESE EFFORTS HAD  BEEN INSUFFICIENT. WHEN HER LEASE EXPIRED AT THE END OF THE MONTH, IT WOULD NOT BE RENEWED. NO EXPLANATION WAS LEGALLY REQUIRED, AND NONE WAS PROVIDED.....  

Housing insecurity in the nation’s richest cities is far worse than government statistics claim.

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Meet Shawn Pleasants

SHAWN WAS YALE GRADUATE, WALL STREET BANKER AND ENTREPRENEUR.

He has the kind of resume that would attract the attention of any job recruiter: high school valedictorian, economics major from Yale University, Wall Street banking jobs, small business entrepreneur. But a few wrong turns in life 10 years ago left him him homeless, and today he's living underneath a tarp in the Koreatown section of Los Angeles. Shawn Pleasants, 52, is one of 60,000 people living on the streets of Los Angeles County. The situation has been in recent years - between 2018 and 2019, the number of homeless people went up 12% in the county and 16% in the city, according to the Greater Los Angels homeless count. Along LA's skid row downtown, tents line entire blocks, and encampments in other neighborhoods have been growing.