Ryan Davis was first in line. He showed up outside Crisis Assistance Ministry off North Graham Street at 4:30 Friday morning and sat reading in his car until other people pulled into the lot. Then he rushed to the sidewalk with a folding chair and staked out a spot.
When the doors opened at 8 a.m., 156 people stood along side him, in a line that meandered around the building.
The crowds have become common in recent weeks, as the ministry has seen a 40 percent increase in those asking for help with rent and utility bills. Davis, a husband and father, needed $560 for rent due today. “I wasn't able to make ends meet, because they cut back my hours at work,” said Davis, 24, who works in the deli of a local grocer. “I've never been in line here before in my life. It's the first time I've ever had problems with the rent.”
It's a predicament hundreds of Charlotteans are facing, as the city feels the impact of rising unemployment and a rising cost of living.
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All have stories to tell of jobs lost, bills overdue and lives coming unraveled.
A woman with few options
Sadie Lee, 64, was 15 minutes behind Davis. She had been there Thursday morning, too, but went home after coming face to face with a line of 256 people, the second-highest number ever.
Her goal: enough money to keep the electricity from being turned off Monday.
“I saw that line yesterday and thought, ‘Oh my God, a lot of people need help,'” Lee said, seated in a folding chair. “So many are out of work and food is going up, gas is going up, and it don't seem like you ever get caught up.”
A retired nursing assistant, Lee says the high school sweetheart she married 45 years ago – who became her estranged husband – died in December. She now finds herself the guardian of two teenage grandsons and a 31-year-old daughter who is mentally disabled. The older of the two boys plans to join the Air Force after he graduates in the spring, and that makes her proud.
“If we don't get things straightened out, we'll all be moving to the shelter soon,” says Lee, who has been warned by her landlord that no utilities will get her evicted. “This is the kind of stuff that tears families apart, and a lot of families are going through it right now.”
The reality of America
After two days in the line without success, Julijana Suvalic showed up at 5:15 a.m., and was fourth outside the door. With her were her husband, Amir, and their 2-year-old daughter, Kasandra.
The couple emigrated from Bosnia eight years ago, expecting America to be the land of opportunity.
She cried Friday, explaining how wrong they'd been.
“I am tired of this life. I have seen this before, waiting in lines in my country for bread,” says Suvalic, 26. “I never dreamed I would have to wait in line here. I thought it was going to be better.”
It was for a while. The Suvalics both had jobs eight years ago, and then Amir, 29, earned certification to work on refrigeration units. But the economy faltered, and Amir was laid off in September after only a month on the job.
Their utilities are due, as is their rent, and they don't have the money for either.
Now, Julijana says her American Dream is to qualify for food stamps.
A mother doing without
Melissa Carmona-Peña, 22, showed up at 7:45 a.m. with one infant, two toddlers, and a letter proving she owes her landlord $1,290. She was near the end of the line.
Her husband, Julio, lost his construction job in February and since then their life has been buried by debt. Their electricity and gas were turned off three months ago, she says.
“It's gotten to the point where his friends and family won't help, because we owe them too much, about $5,000,” she says. “What we've been doing is staying with my sister-in-law at night, then we go back home during the day.”
Currently, there are seven other adults and eight other children living in her sister-in-law's three-bedroom home. “We stay in the living room, on an air mattress,” she says.
The couple, who met nine years ago, believe life is about to get better, because Julio recently got a new construction job. “I don't know if he'll get paid, though,” she says.
That's because the new boss is also one of Julio's cousins, she says, and they owe him a lot of money.
Dad swallows pride
The delicate balance of Terry Little's household budget tipped on Sept. 30 when he lost his job as a customer-service representative for a cell phone company.
Now, bills that were tough to pay are not being paid at all. The electricity at his home was turned off Thursday, forcing Little, his wife and three children to spend the night with friends.
Little, 33, says if Crisis Assistance can't help, he'll use the rent money to pay the electric bill. It's anybody's guess where he'll get the rent.
“As a man and a husband, all you want is to take care of your family and give your kids stability,” he says. “It's very disheartening to tell your kids they can't eat today. I had to tell that to my 7-year-old on Wednesday.”
He doesn't want his children to know how worried he really is. So on days he feels like crying, he goes alone to the park.