In Charlotte/Mecklenburg County, an estimated 6,000 people don't have a place to call home. We see some of them when we head Uptown to Starbucks or for a night at the EpiCentre. And it's not out of the ordinary to come across a homeless person standing near an intersection holding a sign asking for help. But that's only part of the story.
According to the community-based organization A Way Home, "Homelessness is generally not triggered by just one of issue. Multiple factors generally come into play. The lack of an individual support system and poor decision-making skills combined with any of the above can cause a person to become homeless. People facing barriers to employment such as illiteracy, lack of skills and education and lack of transportation and childcare are also at greater risk of becoming homeless."
But in 2008, the threat of becoming homeless took on a new meaning. Mecklenburg Homeless Services reported that, from January 2008 to January 2009, the number of homeless in the county jumped 22 percent as local companies began massive layoffs.
So, what is life like for this growing segment of Charlotte's population?
Meet Octavia Dildly, a 23-year-old resident who returned to the area from Job Corps (a free education and training program) in eastern North Carolina after aging out of foster care. While enrolled in Job Corps, Dildly completed business classes; in her free time, she created a youth group for women called A Woman's Worth, which was designed to foster self-esteem for girls. But when Dildly arrived in the city, she found herself jobless and homeless. She moved into My Sister's House, a shelter in west Charlotte for women without dependent children. (In the program, residents can stay for up to two years while they receive job training, education and other services.)
Creative Loafing recently spent a month with Dildly, chronicling her daily life — from the mundane to the dramatic — as she attended school, searched for a job, dealt with health issues and reconnected with family. (The following is an edited compilation of our conversations. For more, view video interviews of Dildly.)
DAY ONE: Dildly walks into the conference room at My Sister's House, dressed stylishly and smiling. Brimming with a bubbly personality, she sits down and explains how she ended up living at a shelter. "I had to make a decision in my life," says Dildly, "because I was in foster care and I moved out on my own and did my own thing. I moved back in with my family. I thought that my foster family was going to be great ... but they were up to the same old thing. I had to make a decision, whether I was going to let them destroy my life or make a move of my own. It was drama, drama all the time, and I was looking for a way out. I knew if I would've stayed with them, I would've been just as unhappy and miserable as they are. I didn't want that for my life."
"I've been [at the shelter] for two months. ... People expect all homeless people to be bums. They expect that the women have been on drugs or they're a drunk or a prostitute. I've never done any of those things. The only way you will know that I'm homeless is if I tell you. I don't go outside and play that pity party. I know that I'm a great person and I deserve great things, and I'm going to get them. Just right now, I have to build myself up. And until I get to that point, I have to be here. You want to do great things in life, and this is not what you want to do ... you don't want to be stuck in a shelter. Going from having my own to being here is a big leap, and that's hard."
DAY FOUR: Dildly is unemployed, but she spends her days taking classes at Central Piedmont Community College, working toward a degree. On her days off, she looks for work online. Today, she sat in the computer lab at My Sister's House, visiting job search websites, hoping to find full-time employment. "I'm just praying that I get a job," she says. Behind her smile, Dildly is admittedly stressed. To take her mind off her uncertain present and future, she immerses herself in projects like her youth club and volunteer work at the shelter.
DAY FIVE: Still feeling stressed, Dildly takes a "mental break." "I think that there are a lot of things going on [at the shelter], and I needed a day where I could recoup and get myself ready for tomorrow," she said quietly. While she doesn't give details about the incident, she says living at the shelter means dealing with "rude" people at times. But rather than cause a confrontation, she chooses to pull back from the other residents. "I just wanted today, to get myself together. I've been listening to music and watching movies. I just felt like I needed that," says Dildly, adding that tomorrow, she'll get back to looking for a job.