After the Smoothie King laid her off in May, Treysure Steele pitched a tent near some railroad tracks, down the hill from tent city. She figured it was a good place to hide away — from danger, from shame — with her two-year-old daughter.
A month later, Treysure posted on Facebook, “I pray one of these is the last breath I take.”
- Treysure kept breathing. She and Ariya, her daughter, went back and forth from that tent to friends’ couches and one-night motel stays for six months. Then one night in December up walked a volunteer from Block Love CLT named Demeata Watson, who offered her a job and told her she’d found an inexpensive motel room for her.
Big picture: Charlotte and Mecklenburg County have put more than $12 million toward homelessness since the start of COVID-19, adding 273 new shelter beds this year, but still people live outside. Even in winter.
- “It speaks to the heart of this community,” Roof Above CEO Liz Clasen-Kelly told me before Christmas, “but I think it speaks to the complexity of solving homelessness.”
Background: Charlotte made noteworthy progress in reducing homelessness in the 2010s. But it became more visible last spring, when the 12th Street communities grew after the CDC said that encampments should remain intact to prevent COVID spread.
- The so-called “tent city” stirred recognition but didn’t necessarily educate the community on the issue.
- No matter what the encampment looks like through your lens, the issue is wider than that, and much of the houseless population remains in the shadows and the brush.
What’s happening: Mecklenburg County officials said in early December that just 91 people were living in the north end encampment. That would be a surprisingly low number to anyone who drives by the sprawling community, but the county also said that 84 of the tents were empty and being used for storage.
The most eye-popping announcement, though, was this: The county said its community partners had enough rooms available for anyone in the encampment who wanted one that night.
- In other words, they said, if you were staying in tent city that night, you didn’t have to be. Deborah Woolard of the nonprofit Block Love CLT says the question then becomes, How do we help the ones who stay out?
- Among the key findings, the county said, “no children have been reported as living at the encampment.”
Yes, but: That same week, I saw Treysure huddled around a burning grill with Ariya bouncing on her knee.
- Counts are difficult. People move in and out every day, and many people in tents — including Treysure — hide when someone comes to count them.
We have a split government, where the city oversees much of the affordable housing money but the county oversees the bulk of the homelessness funds. Meantime, the on-the-ground work falls to nonprofit organizations.
- Roof Above is the largest nonprofit dealing with day-to-day homelessness. Its facility provides showers and mailing addresses. Late last year, Roof Above purchased an apartment complex in east Charlotte and a hotel in south Charlotte to expand capacity.
- Smaller, grassroots nonprofits — including Block Love CLT, Hearts for the Invisible, and Hearts Beat as One — have steered incredible efforts this year, showing up every day with blankets and tents and hotel rooms for people.
But sometimes even charitable hearts get feisty. Some days there’s actually too much food at once, and other days not enough. This fall, two of the nonprofits got into a public argument.
- Commissioner Pat Cotham has suggested that we should have one office, shared by the county and city, to serve as a central point of contact.
Short of that, the most effective way to ensure that someone who lives in a tent never returns to a tent is for them to find a meaningful connection with someone who can help — like Treysure did with Demeata.
Like Treysure, Demeata was laid off this spring, too, from a contract position as a financial analyst. With three daughters at home, she started the shop, ArKay, selling natural hair and clippers and everything else a hairdresser or barber needs.
Demeata needed an employee. Treysure needed a job. Still Treysure hesitated, saying she worried about leaving her friends at tent city.
- “Well, don’t block somebody’s blessing if you’re not going to take advantage of it,” Demeata told her. Treysure took the blessing. She now works 30-40 hours a week and lives in a $13-a-day motel room with Ariya.
Flashback: Treysure, a Mallard Creek High grad, was working on her cosmetology license when she started arguing with her parents, got thrown out of her home, and quit cosmetology school. Not long after that, she was pregnant with Ariya.
- Ariya was 10 days old when her dad was arrested and sent to jail. Treysure struggled to work and raise the infant. When the Smoothie King in the Epicentre closed after COVID hit, she was laid off.
What she says: “It’s really rough when you get to what seems like rock bottom and you’re out there in those tents, because you don’t think you’re even able to take care of what you need to be a human being.”
I met Treysure for the first time in November, on Election Night. Cotham was handing out bags of food when Treysure asked for two.
- The week after Christmas I met Treysure again, now at ArKay Beauty Supply. She was showing a customer where the hair relaxer was.
- The store’s struggled with a leaky roof and other setbacks, but still Demeata promises to keep Treysure employed. Turns out Treysure’s a natural salesperson, and she’s helped grow the business with her smile and knowledge of the supplies.
Why it really matters: With her hourly pay, Treysure was able to buy her daughter a few Christmas presents: a stuffed unicorn, a Minnie Mouse puzzle, and some PJ Masks and Paw Patrol toys.
Treysure chokes up when she talks about Demeata. Here was a woman who lost her own job this spring, a woman with kids of her own, a small business owner in the time of COVID, and she’d offered her, of all people, a job.
- “The whole point of going into the community isn’t to give out sandwiches or drop off food,” she says. “It’s to help people get out.”
As we finished up our conversation, I noticed a tattoo on Treysure’s forearm and asked her about it. She held it toward me and read it: “Broken crayons still color.”
Subscribe: Join 55,668 smart Charlotteans and subscribe to our daily newsletter here.