Maj. Bobby Lancaster was appalled at what he saw. A 224-bed homeless shelter had admitted over 420 women and children, resulting in dozens sleeping on floors – even newborns and women as old as 74.
As the new leader of Charlotte’s Salvation Army, he was now responsible for that shelter. The overcrowding had to stop. He considered turning people away.
“But then we’d have women and children on the streets,” he said, “so we decided to hang on a little longer, until we find another solution.”
That solution is likely to include expanding the shelter.
For two years running, the number of intact families falling into homelessness has increased by at least 20 percent, including as many as 200 living in hotels and hundreds of others doubled up in the homes of relatives or friends.
Charities are feeling the brunt of the crisis, and none is harder hit than the Salvation Army, which goes beyond sheltering this time of year to providing Christmas gifts to thousands of needy children through its Christmas Bureau.
And again this season, the Observer is inviting its readers to lend a hand to the Christmas Bureau through the newspaper’s Empty Stocking Fund. Last year, readers helped raise nearly $270,000 through the fund, an increase of more than 60 percent above the previous year’s donations.
Six thousand families registered for help through the Christmas Bureau this year, requesting gifts for as many as 14,000 children. The Salvation Army, which also operates holiday programs for the elderly, shut-ins and inmates, can’t come close to covering the cost.
Instead, it’s asking donors to “adopt” kids off “Angel Trees,” give change at red kettles, or donate to the Empty Stocking Fund. The fund raises money to buy gifts for those kids not adopted off Angel Trees. Last year, 7,000 children weren’t adopted by donors.
Many of their families are headed by women who have jobs, but still don’t make enough money to provide Christmas gifts.
Among them is Nicki Walker of Charlotte, the divorced mother of an 11-year-old boy who loves to play golf. She says her son has three well-worn golf clubs and would love a chipping wedge for Christmas.
“I work full time, but after everything is paid for, I have nothing. I have $6 in my bank account right now,” said Walker, 36, noting her salary in the healthcare industry is just enough to disqualify her from government assistance programs.
“I’m one of those people who live paycheck to paycheck and we’re the people who need help right now.”
Acquainted with struggling
The new leader of Charlotte’s Salvation Army understands the predicament.
Lancaster, 63, and his wife, Maj. Kay Lancaster, 64, were raised by parents who struggled to pay the bills, but still managed to keep their families intact.
Bobby Lancaster was in the eighth grade when his father came home from work one day, sat in his easy chair and died of a brain aneurysm. He left a wife and nine children, crammed into a three bedroom house. The youngest was just three weeks old.
Kay Lancaster’s father was a veteran who suffered a paralyzing stroke, prompting the family of five to move into public housing. He died of a heart attack when she was 16.
“Neither of our lives were easy,” said Bobby Lancaster. “We were those families that they call the working poor today...We had everything we needed, but not everything we wanted. We learned the difference between want and need.”
Both had ties to Salvation Army churches in their youth, and eventually ended up attending the Salvation Army Evangeline Booth College in Atlanta.
They met on Sept. 15, 1970, in a courtyard at the college and got engaged two months later. Their 40th anniversary is in January, which is about the same number of years they’ve served in the Salvation Army.
The Lancasters, who transferred to Charlotte from a Salvation Army post in Greenville, S.C., have two grandsons in York County, one of whom was adopted from a 15-year-old single mom.
That only adds to the couple’s perspective of what’s happening on Charlotte’s streets.
On Christmas Day, as many as 200 children – including two newborns – will wake up in the Salvation Army’s homeless shelter on Spratt Street. They’ll get gifts, thanks to donors, and will even have a Christmas tree to gather around, though it will be in the lobby.
That’s too many kids for a 224-bed family shelter, Lancaster admitted.
“I have to ask myself: Is this the best we can do?” he said. “I don’t think it is. We’re not treating people badly, but they are not in a bed and I don’t think the community wants these people sleeping on a mat on the floor. I think Charlotte is bigger than that.”
Other options are tough to find, however. The Center of Hope is where police and sheriff’s deputies bring homeless families they find on the streets. And it has also become a regional draw for homeless travelers, the boldest of whom call from the bus station to be picked up and brought to the shelter.
It’s a request that is typically denied. The shelter has a policy of turning away women who aren’t from Mecklenburg County, and Lancaster has been a stickler for following that rule.
Meanwhile, his best plan for overcoming crowding is to try and expand the shelter by utilizing space on a never-completed third floor.
That is controversial, given the federal push to bring down the nation’s shelter population.
Peter Safir, homeless services director for Mecklenburg County, said the community would be in a crisis if the Salvation Army were to stop admissions. He’s among the people Lancaster consulted when he considered a lock out.
“Hundreds of families would be in harm’s way without the services of the Salvation Army,” Safir says.
There are temporary back up plans. During the winter, the Room in the Inn program recruits churches to take in the homeless on a nightly basis. And in a dire emergency, Safir says, the American Red Cross would open temporary shelters.
The best answers, experts say, are transitional housing programs that require participants attend a school or college or get job training. They’re also expected to take classes to improve their financial skills.
Charlotte’s Salvation Army launched one such program called SHIP, and two-thirds of the families that have left the program found jobs and permanent housing, officials said.
Still, it’s the families that don’t qualify for many such programs that concern the Salvation Army this time of year.
Based on statistics collected by the agency’s Christmas Bureau, the bulk of families seeking Christmas gifts are headed by women and have at least one child between five and seven.
They are a composite of Charlotte, including an increasing number of immigrants from Russia and South Africa, single fathers, widows, disabled veterans and women abandoned by men.
Most of the kids won’t get what they ask for, but that’s not the point, parents say.
Nicki Walker said she waited in line for two and a half hours to register her son in the program. She’s hoping for any gift that will brighten his Christmas morning, and help him hold on to the magic of Santa Claus for just a little longer.
“When Santa doesn’t exist any more,” she asked, “what do they have?”