Empty Stocking Fund

Iraq War vet finds help in Charlotte when money is too tight for Christmas

Safiyyah Stubbs, center, with her children, Imani, 7, left, Jahnese, 9, center/right and Omari, 7, right, on Tuesday, November 15, 2016. Stubbs is an Army Reserve veteran who became homeless and now has a house and is getting help from the Salvation Army for Christmas.
Safiyyah Stubbs, center, with her children, Imani, 7, left, Jahnese, 9, center/right and Omari, 7, right, on Tuesday, November 15, 2016. Stubbs is an Army Reserve veteran who became homeless and now has a house and is getting help from the Salvation Army for Christmas. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Safiyyah Stubbs got tough when she spent 14 months in Iraq with the Army Reserve, so she’s not fishing for sympathy when it comes to talking about the nights she’s slept in her 2004 Chevy Suburban in Charlotte.

She’s seen worse, and being temporarily homeless is not even close, she says.

But talking about her finances became required recently, when she turned to Charlotte’s Salvation Army for some help. Stubbs, 36, is raising three kids and her job as a nurse’s assistant isn’t paying enough yet to cover the Christmas gifts this year.

The Salvation Army has pledged to supply all three children – 7-year-old twins and a 9-year-old girl – with all the proof they need that Santa is real and stopped by their house. The three are among more than 10,000 children registered in the program, which is aided in part by Observer readers who donate money for toys to the Empty Stocking Fund.

Asking for help came at a time when Stubbs’ life is looking up. She found a home to rent through a federal veteran’s housing program this summer, and she is working at one of the city’s largest hospitals. She’ll start college in January for a nursing degree, she says.

“A lot of people don’t know what I was going through. I didn’t talk about it a lot. I wasn’t looking for someone to give me a handout,” says Stubbs. “I just wanted to get through the situation. God found a way.”

As is the case with many of Charlotte’s financially struggling families, Stubbs was a newcomer who arrived here four years ago in search of better opportunities. Housing instability set in when a roommate moved out, leaving Stubbs to cover all the bills.

She ended up homeless not long after, but kept out of shelters by staying in hotels or with neighbors. Stubbs says she avoided going to a shelter, because she didn’t feel comfortable taking her kids to such a place.

Experts for the city’s homeless population say Stubbs represents a common scenario in a city facing an affordable housing shortage. The average apartment rent is up 35 percent over five years, to $1,052. Security down payments, utility deposits and up-front rent must also be factored in, forcing struggling parents to come up with as much as $3,000 before they get a foot in the door of a new apartment.

Stubbs says she was able to save up such money by staying in her truck for a few months. It was the summer, so her children were out of school and were able to stay with their father, she says.

“I was working third shift at the time, 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., and it just didn’t make sense to get a hotel room, since a lot of hotels won’t let you check in until 2 p.m.,” she says. “I’d sleep in the truck, kill time browsing, cruising around until 2 or 3. Remember, I’d been in the military. I could easily sleep in a truck...I explained to my immediate manager what was going on one night when I was late after having car trouble.”

The Matthews Help Center got her back on her feet, she says, including money for a hotel, clothing, school supplies for the kids, and connecting her to housing. “The paperwork for that kind of stuff doesn’t happen over night. Holding on until the transition happens can make or break you,” she says. “It was about two months until I got into a place. I was staying with neighbors, in hotels and in the truck.”

This Christmas amounts to the first time she and her kids will celebrate the coming of Santa in their own place. Their plans include not just opening toys left by Santa, but a home-cooked meal, served with everyone around the table.

“My twins are miracles, born premature at 24 weeks gestation. The boy was two pounds and had fluid on the brain and the girl was one pound,” says Stubbs.

“I thought going to Iraq was scary, but that was scary, just watching them in the ICU. I saw my son go through four operations before he was 1-year-old. He had a lot of challenges and he is so strong. My kids inspire me.”

The Charlotte Observer has sponsored the Empty Stocking Fund since about 1920. In recent years, Observer readers have contributed an average of nearly $370,000 annually to buy needy children gifts for Christmas. All money contributed goes to the Salvation Army's Christmas Bureau, which buys toys, food, clothing and gift cards for families. To qualify, a recipient must submit verification of income, address and other information that demonstrates need. For five days in mid-December, up to 3,000 volunteers help distribute the gifts to families at a vacant department store. The name of every person who contributes to the Empty Stocking Fund will be published on this page daily. If the contributor gives in someone's memory or honor, we'll print that person's name, too. Contributors can remain anonymous.

How to help

To donate online: www.charlotteobserver.com/living/helping-others/empty-stocking-fund. Send checks to: The Empty Stocking Fund, P.O. Box 37269, Charlotte, NC 28237-7269. Questions about your donation: 704-358-5520. For helping families: 704-714-4725.