Justin Markel moved to Charlotte in 2007 for a job – just before the recession of 2008 began.
He was laid off, and after taking temporary jobs, began selling off his belongings to pay bills. First his furniture, then his car. Finally, he gave up his apartment.
“I found myself homeless,” Markel told a crowd of about 250 Tuesday at the first of a series of “listening tours” hosted by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Opportunity Task Force, the group assembled to find solutions for Charlotte’s deep concentrations of poverty. “It was a scary time for me.”
After four years of sleeping at the men’s shelter, on loading docks and in cemeteries, he was able to escape homelessness. He found help and a home at the Urban Ministry’s Moore’s Place.
The streets gave him wisdom. So when task force co-chair Ophelia Garmon-Brown, a Charlotte physician and minister, asked to describe obstacles holding people back from the American dream, Markel instantly said affordable housing and living wages.
He said Charlotte’s undergone an apartment building boom in recent years, but “not one is classified as affordable. If you’re making $7.50 an hour, you can’t afford” to live in Charlotte.”
During Tuesday’s program at Saint Luke Missionary Baptist Church in the distressed Druid Hills neighborhood, banker Dee O’Dell, the other co-chair, detailed what the task force had learned in eight months.
Mecklenburg, he said, is segregated by race, educational achievement, social capital and family structure. He said it has learned there are no easy fixes, that resources for opportunity must start early in a child’s life. The group, he said, will focus on single-parent families, of which there are 47,000 in Mecklenburg.
The group was created after a 2014 academic study showed that poor children in Charlotte have the worst odds of those in America’s 50 largest cities of extracting themselves from poverty.
Garmon-Brown and O’Dell designed the “listening tours” – there will be several more before a final report comes late next year – to go into areas like Druid Hills where residents face the stresses of being poor every day.
About half the task force’s 20 members came to listen, not answer questions. A dozen people stood to speak about everything from the need for quality early education to the importance of affordable housing and jobs.
Tammy Hill of Charlotte said that standards in high-poverty schools had to be raised to end “this scenario of school to prison.”
“In the schools around here the bar has been set so low,” she said. “We must bring equitable resources back into these schools. Any child can learn if you give them the right resources.”
Lewis Corpening, a convicted felon and father of three, said employers are hesitant to hire felons, so he’s left with working low-wage jobs and limited hours. “If youngsters had jobs and were making their own money, things would be better,” he said.
Mecklenburg County Commissioners Chair Trevor Fuller, who in early 2014 called for the task force, was one of a half-dozen elected officials at the meeting. He said he was encouraged by what he heard. “These people talked about themes that we all instinctively knew were important,” Fuller said.
Garmon-Brown proclaimed the meeting it a “major success.”
“Not only did the community come out in large numbers, they were really engaged and lifted their voices,” she said. “They made it clear they want to see a difference for our children, our city and county.”