For years, Eva Walker fed the homeless in relative anonymity, doling out hot meals near the Hal Marshall Center uptown.
Last Friday, she carried out her street ministry under the watchful eye of the police.
Two officers with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department stopped men and women from trespassing onto surrounding businesses as Walker dished out spaghetti and chicken.
Officials say the crackdown at “The Wall” on Phifer Avenue was prompted by nearby property owners who have complained about unruly behavior.
Walker, 61, knows the weekly meal, a cornerstone of her ministry, is in peril.
But she is not easily deterred.
On a recent day, Walker shoved a mattress into the back of a Ford Excursion, sweat beading on her forehead. It would soon lie on the floor of her home – a place to sleep for a woman with nowhere else to turn.
In a city with a shortage of shelter beds and affordable housing, Walker understands the needs of its poorest residents.
“The society of Charlotte says, ‘Move 'em out! Get rid of ‘em!'” Walker said. “To me, that's not the answer.”
A five-year ministry
Walker and her son Bryan, 33, began Jeshua Outreach Ministry five years ago this month. The pair spend most of their time and the majority of their limited resources attempting to allay the pain and suffering of Charlotte's homeless.
Walker's dream is to have a building of her own to serve meals and connect homeless individuals with counseling services. Until she finds a building and the money to pay for it, Walker provides her ministry on the streets.
She first went to Phifer Avenue because the nearby Hal Marshall Center building was public property that housed Mecklenburg County government offices. But the county sold the property in September to private owners for redevelopment. Other nearby retail, housing and office projects are planned. Police said their enforcement is part of an effort to support the revitalization.
Police Sgt. Ozzie Holshouser said the probability is high that Walker's meal will have to move. But it's not the mission of the police to find a new location, he said.
“What we're trying to do is get that activity to move off the city streets and the county property,” Holshouser said.
Walker said she understands the police crackdown and has always had a good relationship with officers.
She's ‘the Road Runner'
On any given night, Charlotte has around 5,000 homeless men and women, estimates show, and only 2,000 shelter beds. The city does not have enough affordable housing, and the waiting list for federally subsidized housing is years long.
On occasion, Walker invites people to stay in her east Charlotte home.
“She's like a second mother to me,” said Melvin Brown II. Brown is homeless and has been staying in Walker's house this summer.
Known to all as “Miss Eva,” Walker taxis local high schoolers to football practice, takes homeless men to job interviews and church services, cooks for a paralyzed neighbor when his family is away, and drives all over the city picking up and dropping off donated items.
She works every holiday, and said she hasn't had a vacation in 12 years.
She said she is driven by her faith in God. Following her husband's death in 1988 and brain surgeries that her son underwent for epilepsy that same year, she said she withdrew into herself. But she said God told her, “Eva, wake up, you've got work to do.”
After that, she started helping people. Her ministry, and the meals it provides, is something Walker and her son can do together.
Her son calls her “the Road Runner,” because of her energy.
Walker fidgets whenever she's still for too long. After years of being in constant demand, she said she feels strange when she's not doing something with her hands.
Irene Moore, 64, runs a daycare center that receives donated food from Walker almost daily.
“If I don't have it, I'll find it from Miss Eva. If she don't have it, she'll find it from somewhere,” Moore said.
Walker picks up donations from a local Food Lion six days a week. The food goes to local churches or to daycares like Moore's to ensure it will be eaten before it expires.
The rest goes in Walker's freezer until Friday, when she and others cook and serve the meal on Phifer Avenue.
Devotion, despite challenges
Walker's generosity sometimes leads to an abuse of trust.
Since 2002, she said, her minivan has been stolen twice by people she was trying to help. The first time, her purse was in the van. The vehicle was returned three days later, but the money was gone.
Walker knew who had stolen it and reported it to police. But the man had a wife and children. He was trying to get his life together.
She dropped the charges.
“She's certainly not naive in terms of some of the challenges of working with this group of people,” said Liz Clasen, associate director of the Urban Ministry Center. “Despite those challenges, she's determined to really devote herself to help them improve their lives.”
Walker said she and her son live on $947 per month, a combination of a survivors benefit check from the Army and her deceased husband's Social Security.
Walker hopes this will be the month when she can come up with enough money to fix her damaged minivan. In the meantime, she has borrowed the Excursion from her pastor.
On Friday, she plans to show up again at “The Wall,” regardless of police presence. She said she'll keep showing up until her mission is complete.
“It's not me,” said Walker. “It's God working in me.”