She reports to her first day of work at 4:55 a.m., riding in a white Kia Optima with a dent on the trunk. In the Monday morning darkness along Wilkinson Boulevard in west Charlotte, strobe lights flicker from the roofs of yellow buses.
Engines grumble and people do, too. Some of her new coworkers walk through puffs of exhaust to the QuikTrip gas station next door for a cup of steely coffee. Others start their day’s work, rolling through the pre-trip checklists: tires, brakes, reflectors, and on and on. In QT’s parking lot, a man is asleep in the cab of a tiny Ford Ranger, his painting supplies in the truck’s bed. It’s 37 degrees.
Mona Lisa Hill heads to the office, where she’ll sign employment papers to become one of more than 1,000 bus drivers for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. The job will pay $15.50 an hour, or about $32,000 a year. That would put her at around 50 percent of Charlotte’s area median income, which would move her out of “poverty” and into the “low-income” classification.
Mona Lisa’s slept in a half-dozen or so places around Charlotte in the past year, including outside. She’s spent much of the past six months working toward her commercial driver’s license through a program at the Charlotte Area Fund, a 56-year-old nonprofit that helps train people like her for employment. That’s where we met, in the Area Fund’s lobby in October, two weeks before she was scheduled to take her learner’s permit test.
In the four months since, she’s wept. She’s celebrated. She’s studied. She’s pulled together money parking cars for a rental company at the airport. She had a birthday, her 54th, though she still disputes her age.
In early January, she received a surprise that was at once everything she wished for and everything she couldn’t handle — her 15-year-old daughter Rebekah, the youngest of her four children, came to Charlotte to live with her. Rebekah had been in Memphis with family, but she wanted to be with her mother. A few weeks after moving here, Rebekah enrolled at Vance High School, making her one of more than 4,500 CMS kids who will experience housing instability at some point this school year.
They’re two of the newest faces of Charlotte’s affordability crisis.
The decade since the Great Recession has filled pockets of many people who live here in the fastest growing city in the southeast, but it’s also widened the gap between those people who have and those who don’t.
A 2014 Harvard and Cal-Berkeley study ranked Charlotte last among major U.S. cities in terms of upward mobility. Leaders have studied the crisis and raised millions for good. But still it boils, despite the efforts of philanthropists.
Three weeks ago, a line of 1,000 people waited outside a new apartment complex to apply for 129 affordable units. Of those units, only 19 are being made affordable to people who make between 30 and 50 percent of the area’s median income — the same bracket Mona Lisa aspires to join.
Still, responses to that story echo the thoughts of generations past, when the economic stair steps weren’t nearly as steep: Just get a job.
But in Charlotte, a city with a shortage of 27,022 affordable units, only 27 percent of homeless people say their biggest barrier to finding a roof is employment, according to the 2019 Charlotte-Mecklenburg State of Housing Instability and Homelessness report. Nearly 10 percent of the people who experience homelessness are employed. And others are working toward work.
Mecklenburg County’s unemployment rate is at 3.1 percent, its lowest point since 2000. Yet nearly 45 percent of all households that rent are cost-burdened, which means they spend 30 percent or more of their income on housing. Nearly half of those households — 38,120 — are severely cost-burdened, meaning they spend 50 percent or more on housing.
In Mecklenburg County, the trouble isn’t finding a job. The trouble is finding a living wage.
“I’ve always worked. One thing you can’t say about me is that I don’t work,” Mona Lisa tells me. “But I need to make money.”
I tracked Mona Lisa’s progress over the past four months to see what it takes for a homeless person to “just get a job” in Charlotte.
Some days were uplifting and positive. “Good morning! On this blessed day! Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family!” she wrote in a text message on Thanksgiving morning.
Others were like the stream of messages on New Year’s Day, after she learned Rebekah was on her way. Mona Lisa had been living in a shelter for single women — with a child, she’d have to leave.
“Hello,” she texted that first evening of 2020. “We haven’t anywhere to go. We desperately need a place to stay. … Please help me!!!”
Joy and misery are sometimes hours apart for her, and usually dependent upon outside forces.
One of the most stressful days was February 9, the Sunday before her first day. The reason? She had no idea how she’d get there. Her shift was scheduled to start at 5 a.m. in west Charlotte, and the Extended Stay America where she and Rebekah have been sleeping in the same bed is in University City.
She doesn’t have a car or money for a Lyft. She travels everywhere by light-rail or bus — tickets the Area Fund pays for. But the trains and buses in Charlotte don’t start running until around 5 a.m., which happens to be the time she needs to be across town.
It’s a riddle with real-life consequences: Who’ll drive the bus driver?
She had one hope: Rebekah’s made friends with a boy in her class at Vance whose mother works for Lyft. She drives the white Kia Optima with a dent on the trunk. She starts each day at 4 a.m. and heads to the airport, a route that takes her past the bus depot. She’s agreed to drive Mona Lisa to work for her first few weeks. Mona Lisa calls the woman Ms. Tracy.
I asked her how she met Ms. Tracy.
“Her son and Rebekah were sharing things about their parenting experiences,” Mona Lisa says. “And it turns out they’re homeless, too. So they started bonding over that.”
What comes first: the house, or the job?
The fair-market rent in Charlotte for a two-bedroom apartment is $1,028, according to the instability and homelessness report. The average rent paid to privately owned motel rooms jumped from $548 to $687 per month over the past three years.
A recent report from The Atlantic shows that across the country, two in five Americans say they couldn’t come up with $400 in an emergency, and one in three households is “financially fragile.”
People like Mona Lisa have little margin for error. In the past year she’s balanced her hours at a shelter — where she needed to be out by 6 a.m., and back by 6:15 p.m., and not one minute later — with the hours at her job at the rental car place, or the hours at truck-driving school. On those days, she had a choice: She could leave work and have a bed, or keep working and sleep outside.
She moved to Charlotte in early 2019 from Roanoke, Virginia, after losing her job and stability following a divorce. Last March, she showed up at the Charlotte Area Fund. The nonprofit is part of the country’s network of community action agencies, designed to help poor people become self-sufficient. It supports people who make up to 125 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $19,500 a year, and helps place them in programs designed to fill working needs in Charlotte. Of which there are plenty.
There, she met Olaniyi Zainabu. Mona Lisa calls her Ms. O.
Ms. O is the Area Fund’s work readiness coordinator and success coach. She and Mona Lisa share one striking similarity — defiant optimism. Ms. O helps people find the course that best suits them. Graduates of the Charlotte Area Fund’s programs have gone on to work in real estate, or as medical assistants, or accounting, or forklift operations.
In their first meeting, Mona Lisa said she wanted to pursue a nursing assistant certification. She’d worked at the hospital in Roanoke. But after Ms. O talked to her for a few days, she learned that the woman in front of her had driven trucks before.
“I just saw the light in her eyes,” Ms. O says. She suggested that Mona Lisa might want to skip nursing and work toward her CDL. She’d be the first woman to go that route through the Area Fund.
Each day for months Mona Lisa would study, then take a bus to the airport to make what little money she could at the rental-car company. When I met her in October, she was weeks away from taking the test to earn a CDL learner’s permit. She was living at a shelter in west Charlotte called Church in the City, the place with the strict hours.
That October morning, she was in the Area Fund’s lobby with her elbows on her knees and her hands in her face. Her eyes slouched.
I asked what she’d like me to know about her.
“You’re looking at a writer. You’re looking at a born, gifted writer, actor.” I looked at her. “No seriously. A star.”
“Even in high school, my teachers would always say to me, ‘You’re going to be the one to really make it.’”
Mona Lisa’s family has a tradition that whenever a new baby’s born, the whole crew comes to the nursery and prays for a name.
It was her aunt, she says, who called her Mona Lisa.
As I do with all people I profile, I left our first interview and ran a background check to verify key parts of her story — where she was born, the number of kids she had, where she’s lived. They were all true, with the technical exception of her last name. It still lists her married name, but she’s trying to shed her ex-husband as fast as she can.
She has only one criminal offense listed, from 2017, for a “defective speedometer.”
Mona Lisa was born in northern New Jersey, near Newark, around the time people like Shaquille O’Neal and Queen Latifah were born in the same area. Here’s where we get to some unverifiable parts, but she’d like me to let people know about them.
She says she was friends with both. She says Shaq stepped on her feet at school dances and that she sang with Queen Latifah when the star was just Dana Owens. Regardless whether they check out, over the course of our time together she’s mentioned them so much it’s clear she believes them.
She says her grandfather was abusive toward her, says her mother was beautiful but elusive, a woman who preferred her boyfriends to her children. She also says that she lived for a time in Alabama with her grandfather — which checks out — and adds that she was kidnapped there and held hostage by her abductors, but I couldn’t find arrest records.
Whatever the case, most of what she tells me is verifiable, and it’s clear she has parts of her childhood she wants to remember and parts she absolutely does not.
Mona Lisa met the man who’d become her husband in New Jersey. They moved to Roanoke, Virginia, where his family lived. She worked at Roanoke Memorial Hospital in environmental services. She won certificates for her devotion to the job. She eventually moved to the dietary department.
At home, though, she and her husband fought. He had a long history of arrest. They called off their marriage. His family had a big presence in the area. She’d see them everywhere she went. She started to believe that each unfortunate circumstance in her life was somehow tied to them and their network. She blames his family for dismissal from the dietary department at the hospital.
“They all were in it together,” she says.
One morning in 2017, she sent Rebekah to school and went to a custody hearing. When she heard the words that told her social services would be removing her daughter, Mona Lisa crumpled to the courtroom floor. To this day, she says she doesn’t know why. She blames the social services worker for creating a false report about Rebekah’s well-being.
Rebekah spent a year in a foster home, then lived with a cousin in Philadelphia, then to Memphis.
Mona Lisa spiraled. She lost her hospital job and fell into more rental debt before deciding that she couldn’t make it in Roanoke. She’d lived in Charlotte for a few years in the late 2000s and liked it, so she turned her sights here.
It’s natural to believe that place can determine happiness or change a fortune. Mona Lisa thought Charlotte would turn her life. She took the train here without any plan except to start over, find good work, and bring Rebekah back with her.
In fundraising efforts and board rooms and homeless counts, Charlotte’s affordability troubles can seem like Charlotte’s problem. But the city is only a highway or train ride away for problems born elsewhere, from the migration of young people leaving rural areas for work, to social issues in other cities in the region.
Mona Lisa started her trip through Charlotte’s network of homeless services here by going to Urban Ministry Center. “They fed us and were nice,” she says. “They would give out scarves, hats, and socks.”
She says she’d walk up and down the street in the daytime, wondering what to do. Some folks on the street offered the wrong kind of assistance. They suggested she start using drugs, or drink heavily, because people with substance abuse problems always find help, they told her. But she believes drugs and alcohol are wastes of money.
Twice, she was the victim of attempted robbery. The second time, she put down her bag and looked the assailant in the eyes.
“Dude, I’m homeless,” she told him. “I ain’t even got nothing myself. What you want me to say? What you want me to give you?”
Mona Lisa landed her first Charlotte job in April 2019, driving rental cars from the airport parking deck to a car wash. But the rental company cut her hours in May, and around the same time, Salvation Army Center for Women and Children told her she’d exhausted her time there. The Area Fund helped Mona Lisa find a bed at Church in the City, a shelter for women on the west side.
Mona Lisa couldn’t enroll in trucking school until she figured out how to navigate the shelter’s hours.
One thing you learn quickly about homelessness in Charlotte is that there’s always a line to wait in.
Sometimes it’s a line at the DMV for a license, or at a cafeteria for a meal, or outside a shelter in mid-afternoon for that evening. And sometimes it’s a line of priorities, arranged based on the basic needs of the day. How, Mona Lisa wondered, could she make it to the trucking school at Hovis Road and put in her time there, and still get back to the shelter before the doors were locked?
Months passed while she worked at the rental-car facility, making part-time wages. Then in August, she finally took the chance and started at the trucking school. Within a few days, she’d made a friend there who agreed to give her a ride.
When you strip away the troubles of getting around and making money, Mona Lisa is a joyful person who makes fast friends. And when you put her behind the wheel, she seems unburdened.
The gears and turn signals and signs — she’s free in a place where the rules are clear.
On Monday, November 4, four days before she’s scheduled to take her learner’s permit test, Mona Lisa spends two hours on the phone with Rebekah.
She calls me later from her bunk. She’s sniffling.
She’d pulled two shifts this weekend at the airport to help pay the $34.99 for a study guide for her learner’s permit test. She’s already passed the air brakes and combinations test.
“I have to stay focused, so I can pass this test,” she says, then she rattles off her list, “and get my license and then get a job and then I can get my baby back here with me and have a place for her to come.”
She says she has to get off the phone for chores at the shelter. I ask if she’ll be OK.
“I have my crying days. I’ve got my times when I know I’m not strong,” she says. “I’m not going to be straight and the tears are not going to dry up until I get this CDL.”
Four days later, she passes her learner’s test. She starts to envision it again. She wants not just to drive trucks but to have a whole fleet of trucks.
“The secret to the truck, it’s not the going forward,” she tells me. “It’s the backing up.”
Church in the City doesn’t allow visitors, so I can’t see her there. We talk a few times over the next month and meet for breakfast in mid-December at the Community Matters Café, a restaurant and coffee shop where all of the employees are going through addiction-treatment programs through the Charlotte Rescue Mission.
She walks in wearing a reflective vest and orders hot tea. When it comes she shakes up and pours out five sugar packets.
On the television in the café is a bit of big news in Charlotte: Billionaire Panthers owner David Tepper and mayor Vi Lyles are on the screen, announcing the new MLS franchise. I ask her what she would do if she had money like Tepper has.
“I would have two or three businesses,” she says, “and hire people nobody else wants to hire.”
Over the holidays, Rebekah calls her mother from Memphis and says she wants to come live with her.
Mona Lisa spends the rest of the week whirling. But she always lands back on the course that’s grounded her all these months, repeated over and over again.
“I have to stay focused on this license,” she says. “I have to stay focused.”
It’s plain to see the toll the past few months have taken on Mona Lisa’s mind and body. Her mood’s shifted up and down in all of our conversations, but this is by far the lowest point.
“My body is so tired,” she says on January 3, her voice weak. “It’s just too much.”
That Friday, the Charlotte Area Fund jumps in to find a hotel room for her; that Saturday, Rebekah arrives from Memphis. They move into the hotel off of North Tryon Street. It has one bed and a small kitchen with electric burners on the stove.
Mona Lisa switches her focus from a Class A license to a Class B license. She still hopes to land the Class A and have a trucking business one day. But she can achieve the Class B faster, and it allows her to find a paying job as a bus driver. She’s talked to CATS about working for them. But soon she comes across a program with CMS.
It takes a minimum of one month, from start to finish, for a person with a learner’s permit to become a certified school bus driver.
She passes the drug test and the background check with no problem, then takes a weeklong School Bus and Traffic Safety instruction class at the DMV. At the end of the week she passes a classroom test. Then she passes a physical and enrolls in a 14-day program working directly with CMS trainers to gain experience driving a bus.
Between the first and second week of the 14-day program, the hotel where she’s living tells her something’s wrong with her payment. They try to throw her and Rebekah out on a Saturday. Ms. O calls and argues, and eventually it’s settled. It costs Mona Lisa eight hours, though, and they have to move rooms.
The next week she’s still ready for the three-day test with a DMV trainer.
From kindergarten on, people encounter tough teachers and more forgiving teachers. There’s one teacher in the DMV bus program who has a reputation for being brutal. “She don’t play,” one of the instructors tells Mona Lisa.
Sitting in the waiting room, Mona Lisa already knows who’ll walk out. Mona Lisa drives for the toughest teacher at the school for two days, then schedules her final exam for Thursday, January 30.
That morning, Mona Lisa leaves Rebekah in the room and catches a train, then a bus, and another bus, to the testing site. She runs through through each item in her head, from the exhaust to the headlights and all places in between. If anything goes wrong with the bus, she needs to know how to fix it.
With the gaze of the difficult instructor on her, Mona Lisa nails each part. She passes. “I’m just so happy,” Mona Lisa says. “I got my CDL. Nobody can ever take a job away from me.”
As she leaves the testing site, she texts Rebekah, who responds, “I’m so proud of you, Mommy!”
Rebekah is a tall 15-year-old with big glasses, white Vans shoes, and a shy smile. On the Monday afternoon after her mother passed the test, Rebekah looks out the window of the first-floor room at the extended stay and sees a group of girls, probably a year or two younger than she is, throwing rocks at something in the woods. She turns her head back into the room and listens to her mother talk about what’s next.
She needs to enroll Rebekah in Vance High. The girl says she can’t wait to go to school.
“I like Charlotte a lot,” she says. “The weather is nice. I hope my mom can get an apartment for us.”
For more than a year in Virginia, the only time Rebekah could see her mom was in a glass-windowed room at the social services building. Everywhere she’s moved since then, she says, she’s wished she could be with Mona Lisa.
“I just missed my mom,” she says of the past two years. “I was getting my hair done and going to school, so everything looked fine. I didn’t really want to show emotions, though.”
Two books are on a table in the hotel room. One is the devotional Come Up Higher by Marilyn Good. The other is the Holy Bible. Mona Lisa checks her phone and slips into a few more stories about her road here, and all the things that went wrong along the way.
Rebekah rolls over on her side and curls her legs into her knees on the end of the bed and takes a short nap.
An hour or so later, it’s dark, dinnertime.
“I want Showmars,” Rebekah says. The restaurant is next door to the hotel.
“Ha,” Mona Lisa says. “I don’t have Showmars money.”
Rebekah’s friend’s mother — Ms. Tracy with the white Kia Optima — drives Mona Lisa to work throughout her entire first week, February 10 through 14.
Mona Lisa spends two days as a passenger with another driver who shows her the route, which takes her to Metro School, Turning Point Academy, and Myers Park High. She’s been assigned to a bus for special-needs children. In her first week, she goes through even one more level of training to learn how to lock wheelchairs in the lift.
“She’s a fighter,” says Devery Peterson, the CMS Safety and Training specialist. “Hers is a unique story for us. We have some drivers who are working and may find themselves in that situation, for whatever reason. Not that many are homeless and come through the training.”
She learns the route not by names of roads but by turns. She follows every rule. No phone on while driving. Turn signals. She never misses a check.
The bus brings the order she craves.
She shows up by 5, does the pre-check, leaves the bus lot, makes the turns, lifts the wheelchairs, waves to the moms and dads, drops the kids off, and comes back to the bus depot by just after 9 a.m. Then she naps until 1 p.m., when it’s off to the schools for the evening route. That finishes between 6 p.m. and 7 p.m., and then she hops on the city bus, which takes her to the light rail, which takes her back to the hotel with Rebekah. A day.
In the middle of last week, I tell her that it seems like we can run her story now, that we’ve followed her to where we hoped she’d go. She agrees. After months of wondering how this would turn out, Mona Lisa has done more than just get a job. She’s found a calling.
Last Thursday, four days into her job, she learns the news. The hotel where she’s staying is raising its rates for the CIAA tournament week.
The Charlotte Area Fund has already contributed thousands to her housing and training over the past few months. Far more than they have with any other client, Ms. O says. She’s one of dozens of Ms. O’s cases, and the fund can’t afford to pay her rent and provide services to others. When Mona Lisa checks her email, she finds a note from Ms. O telling her that they’ve gone as far as they can go.
Ms. O says she’s contacting other homeless services in Charlotte to see what they can do.
But Mona Lisa and Rebekah need to be out of the hotel by 11 a.m. on Saturday, February 22. She’s scheduled to receive her first paycheck on February 28.
“There’s only so much that we can do,” Ms. O tells me when I call her the next day. “I think she’s on to a good start. She’s got a real job, and she’s at least on her way to earning something. I know it’s still going to be a lot.”
Ms. O’s voice cracks.
“People don’t understand that poverty is a hole,” she says. “As soon as you get out of one hole, there’s another.”
Each hole brings emotions that most of Charlotte has never felt, but one that an increasing number of people are in danger of feeling: the anxiety, the shakes, the sleepless nights, and the questions from her children.
On Sunday morning I wake up to two text messages from Mona Lisa, timestamped at 2:13 a.m.
“Please come over here on February 22, 2020. I want have anywhere to go,” she’d written, with the “want” in place of “won’t,” an accidental typo. “We have to check out by 11:00 a.m. Please.”
Update, 6 a.m. February 20: After we sent this story to our Agenda members last night, several of them reached out asking how to help. Unfortunately, Mona Lisa’s phone has been turned off. But we talked to her through a friend last night, and she’s now set up with a new email address, just for correspondence from this story. It’s email@example.com. It’s also tied to a PayPal account. Also, here’s the contact page for the Charlotte Area Fund. Thank you.