We were unseen poverty report from News Record, Living among Greensboro’s unseen, Frank McCain and Michael Cottingham, 41 million Americans living in poverty
“And although the slights they felt that day during instances of people who knew them basically looking right past or through them might have momentarily hurt their feelings, they said they felt worse knowing that homeless and needy people are “looked past” every day.
“People don’t admit it, but most people in our community are two to three checks from being in that same position,””…Frank McCain, News Record expose
“Feeding the homeless sounds like you are not the same, that we are not the same community, but if I invite you over and serve you dinner it’s because you are my friend, we are in the same community, we are the same.”…Greensboro’s Amy “The Chicken Lady” Murphy
“He who has two coats, let him give to him who has none. He who has food, let him do likewise.”…Luke 3:11
North Carolina’s third-largest city.
It is fueled by the addition of families who have fallen out of the middle class because of layoffs or companies closing or underemployment; of working-class people grappling with loss of benefits or reduced hours or rising prices that have given them less to live on; and of those who can’t find work or have given up on looking for it.
Many of those people and families have ended up in a state of homelessness or near homelessness — either sleeping on the streets, in vehicles or couch-surfing among friends and family. Or struggling to stave off an eviction.
Those who work with the local homeless and needy population say it is difficult for others to fathom the depths of the problem — or even see the people behind the statistics.
Such as the family who found a place at the YWCA’s family shelter after neighbors in an out-of-the-way cul-de-sac noticed a car idling there for hours. When the car’s dome light flipped on, children could be seen moving around inside. The residents called police, who called the shelter.
Also at that shelter was the single dad who had been sleeping on a park bench in a quiet park with his 4-year-old daughter because an old eviction kept him from being able to rent again.
That’s one of the reasons McCain, the vice president of community impact and investment at the United Way of Greater Greensboro, and Cottingham, the vice president of marketing and communications, came up with “GSO Unseen.”
In recent winters the extent of the need for shelter has been so intense that the Interactive Resource Center, a day center for the homeless, has been forced to double as a warming station during brutally cold nights because even those people who try to brave the outdoors in the city’s numerous “tent cities” needed a place to go. The YWCA does the same.
At the same time, the United Way decided to focus more of its resources on a long-term approach to fighting poverty.
McCain was telling a good friend about the work, as a way of moving the whole community forward.
“He said, ‘Well, Franklin, what do you really know about poverty?’ He said you don’t know poverty. I do.”
McCain admits he initially was offended. He had upper-middle-class roots, but growing up he had friends whose families struggled. That was also true in college and in his life as an adult.
“Unless you are blind, you see things,” McCain said. “I went to school with people who had less than they needed — but had I truly experienced it? I said maybe he’s right.”
He said he thought about a story on the nightly news about a woman in Phoenix who had left her young children in the car during a job interview. The woman later was arrested.
“Who could think that’s right?” he said he thought at the time.
But as McCain delved more deeply into the root causes of poverty, it became clearer how she came to that bad decision: The woman didn’t have child care. She took a chance, and it was the wrong one. But the story also shed light for him on the kinds of support low-income people need that other people would assume they had.
“I thought, maybe for me to be more effective in the work that we are doing, maybe I needed to get a better understanding, and he was right,” McCain said.
He looked first at the homeless population.
“I saw them as being those who had the least of all,” McCain said.
He shared his thoughts with Cottingham, who had also grown up in a family that didn’t have any needs there weren’t met. Cottingham, who had worked with needs for Medicaid recipients and people with mental-health issues, substance abuse and developmental disabilities, said he knew McCain was onto something.
“It’s easy to think you understand populations you are serving,” Cottingham said.
But had he ever had to choose between food and heat? No.
The idea was to step into the shoes of someone homeless or nearly homeless.
Cottingham, who grew up in Kernersville and graduated from Mars Hills College, has two children younger than 6. McCain, who grew up in Charlotte and graduated from N.C. A&T, has two children, the youngest of which is in college.
On a Monday morning in November 2016, McCain, dressed in a hoodie and slightly stained pants he wore around the house to do odd jobs, and Cottingham, in a flannel shirt and blue jeans, parked their cars near downtown and mentally closed the doors on their middle class lives.
Stepping into their “characters” would be, invariably, easier than they thought.
Traveling with luggage in the middle of downtown during the day gave them an instant invisibility of sorts.
“We were unseen …,” Cottingham said.
“… Even by people who knew us,” McCain added.
As they navigated downtown, two people — a past and a current board member — walked out of a building on Elm Street and directly in front of them.
“People who know us, work with us …,” McCain said.
“… We had to move out of the way,” Cottingham added.
These people who knew them on a first-name basis quickly moved past without even a glance in their direction.
“I almost said, ‘Hello,’ because it was natural to say,” McCain said.
Instead, McCain and Cottingham just looked at each other and kept walking.
The two found the building on the edge of downtown, on a path familiar to those needing help.
“We knew it was important to start the day off at the IRC,” Cottingham said of the day center for people who are homeless or at risk of being homeless.
The IRC provides showers, a laundry, an address for mail that could come from a potential employer or family states away and access to services, such as mental-health management.
McCain said he had known very little about the IRC up to that point.
Developing similar cover stories — each said he was unmarried with a child and girlfriend who would be coming in the near future — they separately walked into the lobby and signed up for an appointment with a case manager. Each took a seat among tables full of people already there.
Nothing seemed unusual to those around them.
When McCain spotted Michelle Kennedy, the IRC’s executive director, walk through the open area, he pulled a newspaper up to his face, fearing she might recognize him.
People in the nonprofit world tend to know him because he is among the people who they talk to about needs.
He wasn’t worried about anyone else.
“I think that people made the assumption that if you are here with us, it’s because you have to be here,” Cottingham said.
Many of the chairs were filled with regulars, but McCain and Cottingham were not the only ones there for the first time. Some others had suitcases or carried bags of clothes and seemingly, the last of their belongings.
“I was sad because there were just so many people,” McCain said. “Women, children and families. Young and old. People with disabilities.”
McCain and Cottingham took in the faces and conversations going on around them, from sports to the challenges of fighting for custody of children.
“Some of the most basic things that they offer there help make the people who use those services feel like they are human,” McCain said of seeing people stop by the IRC to take showers and change clothes.
Among those who rested or waited for appointments, they found people in khakis and button-down shirts, dressed for the lives they hoped for, and others waiting for the shower, to get out of clothes they had slept in.
“There were some people who seemed really into making positive steps, and there were some people who seemed checked out, who seemed tired, worn out,” Cottingham said.
They asked those around the different tables where they could find food and a place to sleep, even a job.
Someone mentioned a temporary agency that had luck with helping the homeless find work, including on a construction project going on downtown.”
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