Outside the convention spotlight, a city struggles

Outside the convention spotlight, a city struggles

Sharon Miller seeks clothing from Crisis Assistance Ministry in order to volunteer at the DNC at some concession stands.

When North Carolina’s largest city takes center stage to host the 2012 Democratic National Convention this week, the country will get a glimpse of a city bouncing back from the depths of the economic recession.

But outside the gaze of the national television cameras and focus of political pundits, many are still struggling with low wages, housing insecurity and joblessness five years after the banking and financial industries collapsed and shattered the economic bedrock of the state’s largest city.

There is no happy ending,” said Nicole Carmichael, 37, a Charlotte woman that’s been laid off from two different jobs since 2008.

While she’s been able to find jobs to pay some of her bills, Carmichael hasn’t found a job that pays the $16-an-hour she made pre-Recession working in a sales job for Coca-Cola.

She’s currently going back to school part time to get a bachelor’s degree and is working a receptionist job making $12 an hour, pay that doesn’t leave her enough to pay the mortgage of her southwest Charlotte home.

She’s trying to work with her bank, to see if she can get her payment lowered so she can stay in her home. Carmichael says she feels like a real-life version of “Groundhog Day,” finding herself back in the same spot after getting hired, fired and rehired.

I’m going backwards,” Carmichael said. “I don’t even think I’m going to be able to retire, and I can’t even think about the future.”

The only future she allows herself to think about is her daughter’s future, and hopes they’ll figure out a way to send her to college two years from now.

I’m trying to teach her that she needs to choose a career that’s always going to be there,” Carmichael said.

For security. The type of security Carmichael wishes she had.

Unemployment, foreclosures up

Unemployment clings to the double digits in Charlotte, at 10 percent, almost two points higher than the national rate of 8.3 percent. It’s only slightly higher than the statewide unemployment rate of 9.6 percent. 

Foreclosures, many launched by hometown company Bank of America, continue to plague Charlotte neighborhoods more than elsewhere in the state. State courts data show that Mecklenburg County had 4,505 foreclosure actions filed in 2012, enough to account for one out of every six foreclosures in the entire state.

Those numbers translate to real people, and convention goers don’t have to go far to see just how much people are hurting. At the Crisis Assistance Ministry, less than two miles from where the high-dollar parties and DNC events will be held, more than 200 different families people line up at 8 a.m. every day to get help turning their utilities back on and paying their rent.

Crises have hit them in different ways – some have lingered in poverty for years, others suddenly lost their jobs or had spouses unexpectedly die and leave them unable to keep the lights on with the drop in income.

Shana Harrell came to the crisis center with her 9-month-old daughter Sabreyah last Wednesday, with overdue notices on her rent and a Duke Energy shut-off notice.

She’d lost her job two weeks ago at a local call center, an industry she’s worked in for six years, when she took off time to care for a sick Sabreyah and nurse an illness of her own. Her baby’s father, who helps with bills as well, lost his job of five years a few days after she was let go when he too had to take a sick day. 

She got her last paycheck the Friday before and has applied for unemployment, but it generally takes six to eight weeks for those payments to kick it. She doesn’t have that kind of time.

I get her things first before I get myself anything,” Harrell said about her daughter as she detailed her her monthly expenses of food, diapers and formula to Kim Ciepcielinski, a counselor at Crisis Assistance Ministry.

With Ciepcielinski’s help, Harrell was able to get her light bill paid, and a $250 voucher to go toward unpaid rent.

Ciepcielinski had a long line of others waiting in the lobby to help, and not much time to counsel Harrell on long-term solutions. But she pointed out to Harrell that the $150 monthly daycare costs and a $474 car payment didn’t seem sustainable for long.

Your car and childcare are killing you,” Ciepcielinski said.

Harrell nodded, she’d look into it. She had a lead on a job at a call center she used to work at, and hoped she’d be back working soon.

Gaps in employment bring people to the crisis center every day, and it sees more than 50,000 people in each year looking for emergency rent and utility assistance.

Carol Hardison, the crisis center’s executive director, said the peak years of the economic recession brought a crush of need which has just recently started to ebb.

But with that drop has come a drop in interest from the larger public, Hardison said.

We’re not the new story anymore,” Hardison said. “It is not going to be talked about anymore, but the work still needs to be done.”

On top of the existing need, she and her staff have noticed a steady stream of recent arrivals to Charlotte attracted by the stories of plentiful jobs in the growing New South from states in Northern climates suffering from stagnant economies.

But few realize that Charlotte too is struggling to regain its footing, and the new arrivals, with little or no family in the area, often end up in the lobby of the Crisis Assistance Ministry looking for help.

The ‘welcome’ sign doesn’t just say welcome to high-income and middle-class people,” Hardison said. “Flocking to the city for jobs is also a flocking of low-income people.”

Hardison expends another economic crisis on its way, now that the resources that middle-class and lower-middle class families once had have been chipped away.

She points to a recent survey conducted by the national workforce think tank Corporation for Economic Development that found that more than a third of Charlotte households only had three months or less of resources at hand.

Any major problem – sickness, a car breaking down, a job loss – means any of those families could be homeless in a few months time. 

Out on the streets, again 

Waiting outside the Crisis Ministry last week, Shawn Mitchell said he came not for help with his bills, but to get some cold-weather clothes to prepare for the coming fall. 

The Crisis Assistance Ministry also runs a “Free Store” where people can come once every other month to pick out clothing and household items. The entire inventory of the donation-based store turns over every two days, staff says.

For Mitchell, who was released from prison in May after serving a two-year sentence for failing to register as a sex offender, the store offered a way to prepare himself for life after incarceration while he stays with his mother in nearby Gaston County. With nowhere else to stay in Charlotte, he spent several nights sleeping on a roll of old carpet behind the crisis center, waiting for the free store to open up.

He wants to work, as he did in his earlier years at fast-food restaurants, but sees his prison record and leg injuries from a head-on car accident he got into 15 years ago as preventing that.

My mind still knows the job and my heart knows the job, but my body can’t do it,” he said.

He doesn’t know what his next step will be, but says he’s thankful for the chance of getting some warm clothes to help him weather the coming months.

The rest, he knows, will be up to him.

Questions? Comments? Reporter Sarah Ovaska will be in Charlotte this week, covering issues related to the Democratic National Convention. You can follow her on Twitter at @SarahOvaska or by email, [email protected]. Photos provided by New Media Director Ricky Leung.