Editor’s note: The Urban Plunge is essentially a three-day mission trip – to Charlotte. You visit several of our missio Dei partner organizations to see how God and God’s people minister to those in need…and join them in their work. In the occasional series People from the Plunge, we’ll introduce you to some of the folks we’ve met along the way and see how God is at work in their lives. Names are sometimes changed for privacy.
His mercies are new every morning
By Jeff Nichols
…weep with those who weep. Romans 12:15
CHARLOTTE – It’s 6:30 a.m., Oct. 21, the first real chilly morning of fall. A new dawn of desperation for Elizabeth McDaniel who waits in the dark at a West Boulevard bus stop.
She checks her portable oxygen. Gets a tighter grasp on her folded up power bill, bank statement and Social Security papers.
Her destination on this Friday morning is Crisis Assistance Ministry on Spratt Street, an emergency financial assistance agency with a mission to prevent evictions and utility disconnections. She’ll wait in a long line with dozens of others for one reason.
Her power is about to be turned off.
Not on some yet to be determined day next month. Or next week. Or maybe Monday so she can at least get through the weekend.
It will happen today. As in, by 5 p.m. this very afternoon.
The name “Crisis Assistance Ministry” is not hyperbole. And so Elizabeth McDaniel isn’t thinking about a restful weekend as she arrives at the agency and begins the slow roll in her walker chair toward the locked door – and a decision on the other side. As the sun rises higher and the line grows longer, the anxiety that comes with crisis wades through her soul. Will 8 a.m. – when the doors are opened – ever get here?
“I’m trying not to worry, but it’s hard not to. I’m just praying that me and my tank won’t end up in a hospital tonight,” she says. “But if they turn off my power, I don’t know where else I’d go.”
The “tank” is Elizabeth’s primary oxygen tank at home. She has numerous breathing difficulties brought on by bronchitis, emphysema, sleep apnea “and everything else you can name,” she says.
So, in Elizabeth’s home, power means more than light and comfort. It’s her very breath.
Take the money and run
She just kept on going. With Elizabeth’s 111 bucks in her pocket.
On a particularly bad morning a few months ago when Elizabeth couldn’t get out of bed, she took her son’s girlfriend up on an offer to pay her power bill for her.
Nobody has heard from the young woman since.
“She took my money that morning and just kept on going,” Elizabeth said. “Why would she do that? I don’t know. But it hurt.”
And it caused Elizabeth, for the first time in her life, to miss a utilities payment. Worse, she slid into an all too common “falling dominoes” predicament experienced by the poor and those on fixed incomes. For many of these folks, there is no savings account, no such thing as an “emergency fund” when things go awry. No loans from friends or relatives or banks.
There is just enough money for each month. Period. So one missed payment leads to more missed payments. Then the late fees, past due notices and phone calls come in as if orchestrated by some uncaring force meant for harm.
And before you know it, you’re waiting in line at Crisis Assistance Ministry, worried mostly about “one little piece of paper.”
“They say they need a copy of my lease and I wasn’t able to find that,” Elizabeth says. “I’ve got everything else right here in my hand, but I’m so nervous about this lease. After all I’ve done been through, this might come down to one little piece of paper. I’ve prayed for strength. I’ve prayed that I won’t get in that door and find out they can’t help me.”
Nowhere to turn
As you might expect in a time of ongoing economic turmoil, the number of folks forced to rely on Crisis Assistance Ministry for emergency assistance continues to climb. Much of the problem stems from the working poor’s inability to earn living wages and the lack of affordable housing.
According to the 2010 North Carolina Living Income Standard, a family of two adults and two children must earn $48,814 annually – an amount equal to 221 percent of the federal poverty level – to afford the actual costs of seven essential expenses: housing, food, childcare, health care, transportation, taxes and other necessities (like clothing, personal care items, household supplies, school supplies and local telephone service).
To meet that level, the adults in the average four-person family would need to earn a combined $23.47 per hour and work 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year.
The minimum wage in North Carolina, however, is only $7.25 an hour or $1,160 per month (less than $14,000 annually), resulting in a huge shortfall.
This shortfall is why many folks like Elizabeth (she has another family member living with her) find themselves juggling bills and expenses every month. Too often, this results in an unpaid energy bill, a hungry child or an eviction notice.
With nowhere else to turn, that shortfall sends people down to wait in line at Crisis Assistance. The agency’s focus is to “stop the bleeding” by working to prevent eviction and utility loss in order to keep people in stable living environments. It works to address longer-term issues through relationships with partner agencies in the community.
The agency also provides clothing and household items free of charge to people in need. It receives roughly half of its funding from Mecklenburg County and half from private donations.
Crisis Assistance places no limit on the number of visits for emergency financial assistance, though there is a dollar amount restriction.
On time God
At about 8:45, Elizabeth emerges with great news. She was approved. Crisis Assistance will cut a check and send it to the power company.
Elizabeth has a chance now to catch up. She smiles widely as she leans on the walker and shuffles slowly toward the bus stop. Toward a weekend with light and heat and a future she knows is in God’s hands.
“He’s the one who’s brought me this far. Not just this morning, he’s always been good to me. Always.”
For more information on Crisis Assistance Ministry, visit www.crisisassistance.org. More than 10 percent of Mecklenburg County’s population lives in poverty.