The Charlotte City Council has a straw vote Wednesday on the 2013-14 budget, and in it is a plan to help launch a $20 million rent subsidy effort for homeless families.
That would be people like Billy and Tamira Ramsey, who have become experts in recent months on how to survive among Charlottes homeless.
They know where to sleep, how to eat, whom to avoid and when to expect trouble.
On a recent night at Mecklenburg Countys Hal Marshall Service Center, the couple sheepishly waited for a free meal in a crowd that included people struggling with addictions and mental disabilities.
The Ramseys stood out: A 30-something husband and wife with a baby in the stroller and a 3-year-old boy in need of a haircut.
People stared. Some grumbled that families get better treatment because they have kids. A few men got annoyed when security guards threatened to toss them out for cursing in front of the boys.
On nights like this, we get our food and get out quick, said Tamira, 37. Sometimes, they get loud and go to arguing over who gets seconds.
Its estimated there are 4,000 people like the Ramseys in the county, some in shelters, but more in hotels or sleeping on the couches of friends.
Most homeless families are single moms with an average of two kids, homeless advocates say.
The numbers have grown between 21 percent and 36 percent annually since 2009, which experts attribute to companies cutting back on pay for already low-wage jobs.
The proposed $20 million endowment would speed charity housing programs along by offering temporary rent help to families who need less than two years to rebound.
Foundation for the Carolinas has pledged to raise $10 million in private money for the endowment. (It has $4 million in contingent commitments.) The other $10 million is being asked of the city.
No city officials have come out in opposition to the idea, but some have questioned whether the city has the money to spare. Charlotte is being asked to give $2 million annually over the next five years, with the first installment coming from the citys general fund.
The proposal is to go ahead and get started on this endowment without any idea where the remaining money will come from, said councilman Warren Cooksey.
Its the interest and earnings from the money an estimated $900,000 a year that would pay for temporary rent subsidies and additional services to help participants become more self sufficient.
This endowment is intended for the working homeless who do not need help for a long time, said Darren Ash of Charlotte Family Housing. Its the ready-to-work population that just needs short-term rocket fuel to get out of homelessness.
A hotel and day jobs
Billy Ramsey, 38, believes he fits into that category. He says he was once a tower crane operator, making in excess of $100,000 a year before the recession. He was laid off from a job in Sumter, S.C., in 2012 and the family came to Charlotte intending to stay with friends while he looked for work.
Instead, they ended up living in the Urban Ministry Centers Room in the Inn, a winter shelter program that places homeless people for the night at area houses of faith and colleges.
When Room in the Inn closed for the season in March, the Ramseys faced two options: live in their 1989 Buick or be separated by gender between the citys shelters for men and women.
Billy would settle for neither, so he began working day labor jobs and used the money to rent a hotel room near the intersection of Woodlawn Road and Interstate 77.
Theyre still short of cash, though, so theyve continued to eat at soup kitchens.
He and Tamira both say theyve tried to sell plasma for cash and were rejected for not having a permanent address.
Homeless families get used to being turned down for stuff, Tamira says.
Just recently, she says ImaginOn declined to give their oldest boy a library card because the family couldnt produce anything with an address on it.
We were considered transients, Tamira says.
Inspiration and humility
Still, the Ramseys have inspiring stories about Charlotteans going out of their way to help, like the night a Carolina Panther and his wife drove up to a crowd of homeless people in uptown and passed out $5 bills. It nearly caused a riot, Billy says.
One homeless lady said she was cold and this guy went to his trunk and got his wifes coat and gave it to her, he recalls.
The couple found similar kindness at Charlottes First Baptist Church, which hosted them during Room in the Inn. As many as 20 members of the congregation have helped, including Darci and Chris Horne, who lent the couple money to pay for a few days in a hotel.
Darci says it was seeing the two boys that touched her heart.
The oldest boy was crying and Tamira was crying, and the baby was in a stroller, coughing and wheezing, she says. It was cold and raining outside and I couldnt stop wondering what they were going to do.
Billy has been asking himself the same question, often in the middle of the night when his mind races and he cant get back to sleep.
All it took was getting laid off, he says, and all his mistakes came back to haunt him, including not saving for the future. On top of that, he has fallen behind on child support to an ex-wife, which got him in trouble with the law.
Before this, when I saw a homeless man holding a sign along the road, Id tell him he needed to get a job, says Billy, who is 6 feet 4 and weighs 360 pounds. I never thought it would happen to me.
Hes swallowing his pride on a daily basis, taking whatever job he can get to pay their hotel bill and put gas in the car.
Lately, thats involved painting at $10 an hour. Its a third of what he made as a crane operator, but hes grateful and even optimistic.
This is the beginning of a turnaround, he believes.
No so fast
The Ramseys found a rental home north of uptown Friday and they expect to move in on Wednesday.
Billy admits being shell-shocked at how much the housing search cost, starting with the $25 to $50 fee charged by landlords for background and credit checks. Its typically nonrefundable.
It took two months to find a willing landlord. Then the couple learned theyd be responsible for hundreds of dollars in upfront fees, including deposits for water, electricity, gas and the equivalent of three months rent in advance.
Grand total: $2,280, if you include the requirement that they install a smoke and carbon monoxide detector before moving in.
And theres still no guarantee they wont be evicted in coming months.
The proposed endowment is intended to avoid that. Though most of the money will cover rents, a couple of hundred thousand each year will go to programs that help families avoid falling back into a financial crisis.
Charlotte Family Housing even goes so far as to give them 90 days of free housing while they save up money for down payments and upfront fees. Once a family has moved into an apartment, the agency surrounds them with a support system that includes social workers and volunteers.
Nine of every 10 families helped by Charlotte Family Housing are back on their feet and out of subsidized housing within 21 months, notes Darren Ash.
The Ramseys hope for the same outcome, though they ended up getting critical help from First Baptist Church. Specifically, Darci and Chris Horne worked with their Sunday school class and others at church to collect the $2,280.
Darci has faith the Ramseys will not be homeless again.
Billy hopes shes right.
He doesnt have a steady job yet.
The kids need toys and clothes, and his wife needs a lot of reminding that he loves her for sticking by him.
But we have a home now, he says. Thats a start.