For Oscar Olivares’ neighbors, life in their south Charlotte apartment complex is a daily struggle with little way out.
The apartments off Arrowood Road look kept up on the outside. On the inside, two, even four, families often share the rent and meals. Some sleep in cars when they can’t afford to rent. Nights can bring trouble – many residents stay locked inside.
Olivares, 59, and wife Claudia, who both grew up in desperate poverty in Chile, chose to live at the complex to conduct mission work. He is a part-time chaplain for Forest Hill Church and works with the nonprofit Learning Help Centers of Charlotte, two groups among many that help poor residents try to overcome poverty.
“You don’t have to go overseas to do mission work,” Olivares said. “It’s right here at the back door.”
The poverty he lives among is invisible to most. But since 2000, concentrated pockets have mushroomed throughout Mecklenburg County and major North Carolina cities.
U.S. Census Bureau estimates released in late June show that North Carolina had the country’s largest increase in the percentage of people living in distressed neighborhoods, more than doubling in the decade since 2000.
In Mecklenburg, 1 in 4 residents lived in distressed neighborhoods in 2010, up from 1 in 10 in 2000, the Observer found. These neighborhoods have at least 20 percent of residents living below the federally established poverty level – for a family of four, a yearly household income of $23,850 or less.
Distressed communities, or “poverty areas” as the census calls them, aren’t festering slums. They may be areas where at least 20 percent of residents are poor, but also can be home to middle- and upper-income residents.
The census data was taken from surveys done from 2008 through 2012, some of the worst years of the recession in Charlotte. The bureau’s five-year estimates offer a snapshot of changing conditions in small areas. The estimates don’t take into account recent social and economic changes in those communities.
The pockets of poverty have moved beyond uptown’s periphery and crept into suburbia, along major corridors such as South Boulevard and South Tryon Street to the south, and Central Avenue and Albemarle Road to the east.
At risk are once proud and thriving sections of Mecklenburg descending into daunting distress, and longtime residents who provided stability leaving, some experts say.
“When poverty expands, pathologies – crime, poor health, unemployment, lost property values – often rise,” said Gene Nichol, director of the UNC Center on Poverty, Work & Opportunity in Chapel Hill. “The pathologies affect those in poverty and (residents) who live around those in poverty.”
The fears can be largely perception but “strong enough that people leave,” said Owen Furuseth, associate provost for metropolitan studies at UNC Charlotte.
“They may be replaced by more poor people and the concentration of poverty grows,” Furuseth said. “Government can’t just stand passively by ... once the economic stability begins to crumble.”
Overcoming impoverishment is especially daunting in Charlotte. A study by Harvard and the University of California at Berkeley showed that upward mobility for children living in poverty is more difficult in Charlotte than any of the country’s 50 largest cities.
Last January, the study prompted Mecklenburg County commission Chairman Trevor Fuller, in his state of the county address, to bemoan the “intractable” poverty, promising a task force to find a “blueprint for action.”
Fuller has yet to announce the group but expects it to get started in late summer. It will include leaders from academia, the business and faith communities, nonprofits, philanthropy and low-income residents.
“We’ve been so focused on building the prosperity, we just haven’t paid attention to what’s been happening in our county,” Fuller said. “We assumed that everybody was sharing in the prosperity – that’s not been the case.
“It is vital for the economic health and future of this county that we find reasonable solutions.”
Not on ‘the main route’
In 2000, Mecklenburg’s deepest pockets of poverty appeared as a crescent on the city map, just north of uptown’s skyscrapers. Now they are in the town of Pineville in the south, at the Cabarrus County line in the northeast and moving eastward toward Mint Hill.
In recent years, Loaves & Fishes food pantry opened satellite pantries in Pineville and Mint Hill, said Executive Director Beverly Howard.
“They are places that 10 years ago I never would have dreamed would have the need for our help,” Howard said. “But everywhere in the county there is so much low-income need and it’s stretching farther and farther out.”
Often distressed neighborhoods are tucked out of the way in areas of low-rent houses and sprawling apartment complexes.
“Charlotte has done a good job of making sure these pockets of poverty aren’t on the main route,” Howard said. “These are people who mow your grass, assist in nursing homes, clean your office. They are people you interact with without a clue that they’re working for $7 or $8 an hour.”
Behind the scenes in these neighborhoods, many people are unemployed and receive government assistance such as food stamps, said John Chesser, a senior analyst at UNC Charlotte’s Urban Institute.
Nearly 232,000 residents, 25 percent of the county’s population, receive some sort of government assistance, commission Chairman Fuller said.
Charlotte Mayor Pro Tem Michael Barnes said he began to see the rise in distressed neighborhoods before the recession hit Charlotte in 2008. He attributes it partly to federal policy that has allowed the income gap between rich and poor to widen. He said the City Council has worked to recruit companies that pay decent wages for blue collar workers.
Barnes said the problem of spreading pockets of poverty is not unique to Charlotte but affecting cities across the country.
Many distressed neighborhoods are filled with immigrants from around the world, drawn to Charlotte by stories of plentiful jobs, good weather and good schools.
In North Carolina, about 350,000 people live out of compliance with federal immigration laws, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. Other agencies believe nearly 50,000 live in Charlotte.
But poverty in Mecklenburg is not solely an immigrant problem. Of the 132,000 people in poverty in 2010, 46 percent were black, 37 percent were white and 23 percent were Hispanic.
Yet the influx of immigrants has “introduced into the mix a new complication,” Barnes said.
“We need to make sure these people get the education and learn the skills they need to succeed,” he said. “Most municipalities don’t have funding to do those things. That needs to come from Washington or Raleigh.”
‘Expensive to be poor’
A common image of poverty in North Carolina for generations has been the dilapidated houses and junked cars on the way to the beach or into the mountains.
But since 2000, as rural residents and immigrants moved to the state’s urban centers for jobs, the more pervasive and intense poverty began to grow in Charlotte and other North Carolina cities. Today, two-thirds of the state’s distressed areas are in urban centers.
“The general portrait of rural poverty masks another reality – the deepest poverty in the state is located right in the middle of Charlotte, Durham, Raleigh, Greensboro and Winston-Salem,” said Nichol, the UNC poverty center director.
It accelerated during the recession, when the state ranked seventh in the country for jobs lost.
From 2008 to 2010, North Carolina lost more than 335,000 jobs, a large chunk in manufacturing, said Larry Parker, spokesman for the Division of Employment Securities. The Charlotte area lost 70,000 jobs, many of them high-paying jobs in the financial industry.
“If people lose their jobs completely, you go from middle class to poverty really fast,” said Chesser of the UNCC Urban Institute.
Since 2010, the state has regained more than 280,000 jobs, and the Charlotte region 92,000, Parker said.
Still, wages have dropped the past five years across the state. In the jobs that have come back, low-wage work outnumbers high-wage jobs, with middle-income jobs coming in last, said N.C. State University economist Michael Walden.
Many of the state’s factories were shuttered by 2000, taking with them thousands of jobs that once lifted workers into the middle class – even with little education. Those jobs have been replaced by thousands of low-wage service-sector jobs: cleaning offices or hotel rooms, cutting grass, construction, assisting at nursing homes and working in big-box stores, fast-food restaurants and hospitals.
“It used to be you could stop at high school and go into the factory and work and do OK,” Walden said. “Now if you’re someone in North Carolina and you’ve not gone to college, your job prospects are not very good.”
That’s a problem for people trying to claw their way out of poverty, Nichol said. So many conditions work against poor people, he said. For residents who can’t afford cars, public transportation doesn’t always serve them well in their neighborhoods.
Child care often isn’t affordable, and economic development is slow. “It’s often more expensive to be poor,” Nichol said.
‘Needs are so basic’
Oscar Olivares hears those sad stories every day.
He and wife Claudia came to the United States from Chile in 1982 and have lived in Charlotte three years. They moved into the Arrowood Road apartments in October.
Last week, giving a tour, Olivares stopped Juan Fuentes to chat. Fuentes is a newcomer from Honduras, lured by two nephews in Charlotte with stories of work. He shares a four-bedroom apartment with 12 relatives.
He came to make money “so my family in Honduras can survive,” he told Olivares.
He found quick work laying carpet but hasn’t worked in a month. “I want to work, I want to make better life for my family,” Fuentes, 45, told Olivares.
Olivares and Claudia feel they are making a difference. They say they are still winning trust but the solutions are elusive. Oscar runs a summer camp and after-school program for the children. He brings in experts to help neighbors set a budget and provide information on health care and education opportunities.
“I give a bicycle to a kid and go home and say, ‘Thank you, Lord, because today I was a good guy and you gave me the opportunity to make a child happy.’ But the whole time, her father is thinking, ‘How will I pay rent tomorrow? How can I get 20 bucks to get gas and go to work?’ ” he said. “Those are the real issues we deal with. I can’t talk to that man about prophesies – he don’t care.
“All his needs are so basic and he can’t get them.”