"Can you see me?" Eugene Coleman asked the 400 students gathered in the darkened high school auditorium. "Yes," they answered.
"That's important," Coleman said. "Because for 20 years, I didn't think anyone saw me."
To raise awareness about homelessness in Charlotte, the South Mecklenburg High student group Sabres Stand Against Indifference organized a week of activities for the students and community May 17-21. The week included guest speakers, a homelessness art exhibit, petitions for city council members and an awareness walk Friday afternoon.
But the highlight of the program was when Coleman, a suit-clad former homeless man, took the podium last Tuesday morning.
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Coleman, 59, spent 20 years living under bridges and nursing the drug addiction that drove him to the streets.
But thanks to a drug rehabilitation program through Charlotte's Urban Ministry Center, Coleman now has a home. He's drug-free. He's employed.
"For 20 years, I cried that same song, 'Can You See Me?', but nobody could see me because I didn't want to be seen," said Coleman. "Drugs took all my pride, robbed me of every piece of self-respect, every dream I ever had. They robbed me of my education, robbed me of that Cadillac I should have been driving, robbed me of that condo I should have been living in.
"But somehow God saw fit to give me a second chance," he said. "And that second chance is people like you."
Coleman was part of a pilot "housing-first" program for the homeless, through Charlotte's Urban Ministry Center. His success story is helping to drive the building of Moore Place, an 85-unit apartment complex through the Urban Ministry Center that will provide housing and services for the chronically homeless. Construction will start this year.
All of the money raised from the awareness week will be donated to Moore Place, said senior Anna Sturkey, the club's co-founder and co-president.
The week included an art exhibit in the school's media center, which featured creations depicting homelessness from three different art classes. During the students' lunches last Thursday, Sabres Stand Against Indifference asked students to sign petitions requesting the Charlotte City Council to support Moore Place. They got more than 400 signatures.
And 560 students paid $5 each to walk the school's track Friday afternoon, contributing to the nearly $5,000 the student group raised for Moore Place.
Two years ago, South Meck senior Anna Sturkey, 18, planned the first awareness week to raise money for Darfur. Response from students and faculty was great, so the following year, she co-founded "Sabres Stand Against Indifference," which would plan the next awareness week and walk. The second year was for education in third-world countries.
Then students started talking about shining a light on an issue closer to home, said Diane Shell, an environmental science teacher at South Meck and the club's advisor. "Kids wanted to have a personal connection to the issue."
Sturkey did her required senior exit project on homelessness in Charlotte and realized it was an issue that you didn't have to go outside the community to find.
In the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools system there are about 3,000 homeless students, according to a January 2010 CMS report.
Shell understands the hardships of life.
When she was 7 years old, her parents moved her and her brother to their great-grandmother's two-bedroom house. For 10 months, Shell and her brother shared a twin bed in the kitchen.
"Homelessness takes all shapes and sizes," said Shell.
"We get so caught up in our own lives, looking out of our private bubble," said Sturkey. "But we see the need and we do have power. We have power because no one expects it from us."