Pam Kelley, a reporter whose focus is on the challenges facing people below the poverty level, submitted this story to the Charlotte Magazine.
Pam conducted interviews with Cheryl Potts over a three-year period. Cheryl believes in the advice given to the poor that if they acquire certain skills, make certain choices and maintain a good attitude, they can escape poverty. Others in her situation consider this a myth.
Cheryl lives at Southside Homes with her young niece, Jameelah. You can ask residents at Southside Homes, a public development built during segregation in 1952 as “low rent housing project for negroes,” about this. They will tell you that “there is no way out”.
Sixty years later, although surrounded by retail stores and luxury apartments, nothing at Southside has changed. Nearly all residents are of color and only twenty-three percent hold jobs. Most residents came from families who had lived in low income housing for generations.
The Jobs Plus Program
In 2016, Pam Kelly was given permission to sit in on Cheryl’s classes in a Federally funded program Jobs Plus, now called Inlivia, run by the Charlotte Housing Authority. The goal of the program is to help residents find jobs and move out of public housing.
According to a 2014 study on economic mobility, Charlotte was last (in 50th place) on a list of large Cities in the United States. This is interpreted as if a child born in Charlotte is living under the poverty level the child will remain living under the poverty level.
Cheryl’s mother, Mildred Potts was born in 1932. Mildred quit school and worked in the cotton and watermelon fields. Then for decades Mildred worked in a popular diner in town. The owner said she was the best cook he ever had working in his diner. Mildred had raised nine children as a single mother. She died in 2015.
Research indicates, however, that a person has a better chance of moving out of poverty living in Canada or Australia. The reasons are universal healthcare and abundant safety nets.
Southside’s program recognizes the inequities of poverty but focuses on habits that the participants in its class are able to change. The theory is that people living without reasonable resources will live in a day-by-day ‘survival mode’ rather than planning for the future.
One example of the need for training is a worker being criticized by a supervisor. The worker’s immediate instinct is to lash out at the supervisor.
Another symptom of the survival mode is immediately spending a tax return refund rather than saving it for emergencies. One of the goals of Jobs Plus is helping class participants think in terms of achievement, not just survival.
Cheryl had been working part time as a healthcare aide earning $8.50 an hour and struggling to support her niece. She joined the Jobs Plus program that paid her $20 for each class she attended. The program also froze her rent so that Cheryl would only be paying $75 per month until 2019.
The class ended in 2016 and Cheryl began a full-time job in food service at the airport. Within a brief period on the job she was voted Employee of the Month.
Pam Kelly followed Cheryl for three years. Pam says it was an atmosphere where one single mistake or a little bad luck could derail Cheryl’s plans to move up and over the poverty level. Pam also admitted that Cheryl’s situation was different than her own where her parents owned their home and paid for Pam’s college.
Living at Southside Homes
Cheryl and Pam met in 2016 at the Jobs Plus class. Cheryl, then age 49, and her niece arrived at Southside in 2007 with just a TV. Her Church donated a box spring and mattress which they both shared until she was able to furnish most of the apartment.
Nine years ago her daughter was killed in a car accident and Cheryl still suffers bouts of severe depression. Nevertheless, she credits daily prayer and being with her niece for giving her purpose in life. Her goal was to move to a safe neighborhood and have a house with a backyard. At night Cheryl and Jameelah often have to turn up the TV to drown out the sound of gunshots.
By 2016 it was evident that race discrimination had endured. The average white family had median wealth that was ten times that of the average non-white family.
Sarcoidosis, A Rare Disease
There is another obstacle; Cheryl has an inflammatory disease called sarcoidosis for which she takes prescription medicine. As a result of the disease, her right knee has damage and her right ankle is held together with a plate and screws. She is unable to stand for any length of time due to swelling and pain in her legs.
She was recently rushed to the ER with a bout of severe depression that left her with a $473 bill that she was unable to pay at the time.
An Unexpected Bump in the Road
Everything was moving along as planned when in 2017 Cheryl became upset with the way she was treated at her job. She followed Jobs Plus guidelines and reported it to management. Getting no response, she abruptly quit her job.
Cheryl had been saving through her 401K, bought a car, and was on track to move out. Everything changed drastically and she had to rely on her Church and family for immediate support as her 401K netted her about $1000.
Cheryl went back to Jobs Plus and was helped with interviews. She also received ‘interview’ clothes from Dress for Success, a non -profit that provides corporate type clothes for women.
By Thanksgiving Cheryl had started a full-time job as a cashier in a deli. In no time she was awarded for excellent customer service with her photo at the entrance to the store.
Jameelah started kindergarten in 2018 and Cheryl was able to adjust her hours accordingly.
In January 2019, Cheryl started to fall behind in her car payments. The car was repossessed but Cheryl was slightly relieved. The car payments were a tremendous burden. Cheryl was able to continue transporting Jameelah thanks to a family member lending her a car.
A Happy Thanksgiving
Just before Thanksgiving, Pam received a call from Cheryl saying that she had received a housing voucher that would relieve her of paying seventy percent of her rent. That left her with only paying $250 each month.
At the same time, Southside presented tenants with a work requirement. Tenants who were considered employable had to:
- work a minimum of twenty hours a week or
- take a required number of classes or
- be responsible for the care of a child under one year of age.
Tenants who did not meet these requirements would see their rent return to market rates by January of 2020.
Currently, 77% of Southside residents are working compared to 23% in 2016 before the requirements were put in place.
In January 2020 Pam and Cheryl met to discuss the possibility of Cheryl moving to a better apartment and improved neighborhood. That would entail earning more than her current job so they decided to put the plan on the back burner.
Pam Kelley submitted her story before the Covid-19 virus was evident. She contacted Cheryl in March 2020 during the announcement of the stay-at-home order in Charlotte. Everything has changed – again – for Cheryl.
Now she spends a good part of her day at work wiping down shopping carts, but even wearing gloves she worries about getting the virus.
She had planned to train as a home shopper but that is now on hold. Her rent voucher expires in May and she is hoping for an extension.
Risk of the Virus
The sarcoidosis puts Cheryl at increased risk as it can easily damage her lungs. Recently Cheryl spent three nights at a hospital with pneumonia. She does not have paid sick leave. Her hospital expenses came to more than one week’s pay.
Cheryl has survived so far and is living day by day. She has a lot to offer her employer and especially a lot of love to give her little niece.