Even when issues don’t seem to have an impact on the Democratic National Convention coming to Charlotte in September, they do.
For instance, the convention was noted by Maria Hanlin, executive director of Mecklenburg Ministries, before she introduced Souls of Our Neighbors: Fears, Facts and Affordable Housing. A crowd filled the Wells Fargo Auditorium at the Knight Theater on Tuesday to view the 28-minute documentary that presents Charlotte’s increasing problem of homelessness and the struggles of the working poor to find housing through the eyes of six families.
In the middle of a 10-year plan to alleviate the problem, there are still more than 4,700 homeless children in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. What's more, day-care workers, health aides, service reps and others in low-paying jobs still spend more than half their paychecks on rent and utilities (the goal in affordable housing is 30 percent or less).
Will the prospect of a national and international spotlight kick-start efforts from nonprofits, faith congregations, businesses and others, to alleviate the problem? Communities such as Ballantyne have rejected plans to construct affordable housing because, in part, of what the documentary calls myths — that it brings crime and lowers property values.
In Souls of Our Neighbors, ministers, law enforcement officials, housing development experts and those who have had their lives changed by a safe and stable place to live try to dispel the fears with personal stories. The sentiment they express: It’s “more than shelter.” At my home parish of St. Gabriel, a weekly host of the Room in the Inn program, many of those who come for a night’s shelter and a few meals work at low-paying jobs and include women and children.
In the film, Mayor Anthony Foxx walks with two men who, like Foxx, grew up in Optimist Park. All three are now professionals who were once youngsters with uncertain futures. They sincerely express what their homes and upbringing meant to them. On Tuesday, Foxx unveiled a proclamation naming 2012 the “Year of Our Neighbor.” Those in government “can’t do this by ourselves,” he said.
The program was sponsored by the Foundation for the Carolinas, Wells Fargo, the Knight Foundation and Crossroads Charlotte, and hosted by Crossroads, Mecklenburg Ministries and Temple Beth El, whose Rabbi Judy Schindler made the case for individual involvement.
Alana McClendon, who is featured in the documentary, tells of moving to a shelter with her three children to escape an abusive relationship. She got a hotel customer-service job while living there and is now living in affordable housing, where she says neighbors who didn’t know she was a part of such a program welcomed her.
On Tuesday, she told those gathered that a reasonable rent allows her to purchase other necessities — she does’t have to choose between food and utilities or deny her children the cost of a school field trip.
What would she say to the skeptical? After the program, McClendon told me she would tell Charlotte’s citizens “they need to be more open-minded to everyone’s humanity.”
Will a difficult issue take hold not just because it’s the right thing, but also because of the city’s need to project a progressive New South image to all who follow the Democrats to town?
Affordable housing developer Dionne Nelson said it was a good chance everyone would pass by affordable housing on the way home from the event and not notice a difference. But then, the folks who would spend a good part of the day after a holiday weekend learning about Charlotte's housing challenge aren’t the ones who need convincing.
Meanwhile, the Democratic National Convention Committee continues to take care of convention business. It announced in Durham on Wednesday the investment of convention funds — $2 million each in non-interest bearing accounts — in two North Carolina minority-owned banks: Mechanics and Farmers Bank and the Latino Community Credit Union.
At a press conference — at the historic North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Building, the oldest and first African American-owned insurance company in the country — and in a statement, DNCC CEO Steve Kerrigan said the funds “will help these institutions expand lending and economic development efforts to communities across the state.”
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning Charlotte, N.C.-based journalist, is a contributor to The Washington Post “She the People” blog, The Root, NPR, Creative Loafing and the Nieman Watchdog blog. Her “Keeping It Positive” segment airs Wednesdays at 7:10 on TV’s Fox News Rising Charlotte, and she was national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter.
Watch the trailer for Souls of Our Neighbors: