Single father Michael Nutall doesn’t think of himself as homeless, because he and his 7-year-old son have a place to sleep in the home of a family friend here in Charlotte.
But the pair are an example of an illusive group of Charlotteans known to charity experts as couch surfers: People with no home of their own but avoid shelters by sleeping on the couches or floors of relatives or friends.
An exact count of Charlotte’s couch surfers is impossible to get, because they exist off the charity radar. It’s estimated there could be as many as 4,000 in Mecklenburg County, many of them parents who lost a home and exhausted their savings trying to live temporarily in a hotel.
Nutall, 43, says he resists asking charities for help, but buckled this year and registered his son to get toys from the Salvation Army. The Christmas program will provide toys to just over 11,000 children this year.
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“Believing in Santa gives children hope, and my boy needs that hope more than most,” said Nutall, who says he has custody of Tyler because the boy’s mother doesn’t have a home.
“I think we all need to believe that there are good people in the world and in the case of a child, that good person is Santa who brings them presents on Christmas Eve. My son will know joy because of that and what parent doesn’t want their child to know joy?”
Nutall grew up in a broken home in Memphis, Tenn., the son of a single mom who became a preacher. She’s dead now but always on his mind. He recalls she provided love and necessities to her five kids, while his dad showed up with flashy presents.
Looking back, he realizes it was his mom who made the sacrifices.
He’d like to imagine his own son will one day think the same of him, and forgive the inconveniences that have plagued their life the past three years. That’s when the two lost their apartment and were forced to move in with Latasha Powell, a family friend who is both a mother and grandmother.
She is letting Nutall stay on her couch in part because he helped her out many years ago.
“I’m returning the favor. I wouldn’t let a father and his son stay in the cold on the streets,” Powell said.
“I think what he’s doing is wonderful, because we have so many dads who are not there for their kids. I’m proud to see a man step up and take care of his son, because it’s usually the women doing it.”
Nutall is helping pay her bills the best he can, with Social Security benefits. He hasn’t given up hope that better medication will help him go back to work, despite his disability. The biggest challenge, he said, is a short attention span and inability to focus, caused when he was hit by a car while crossing the street.
Tyler’s Christmas gifts last year were bargains from a discount store, but Nutall says Tyler didn’t notice.
“He was ripping and tearing into boxes like it was gold,” said Nutall, who hopes to do better this year. “I had to swallow a little pride to ask for help from the Salvation Army this year, but I was willing to do anything to make him happy.”
Tyler, a student at Starmount Academy of Excellence is hoping for a scooter, which his dad says he likely won’t get.
As for Nutall himself, he says the only gift he wants for Christmas is to wake up in the same house as his little boy.
The Empty Stocking Fund
The Charlotte Observer has sponsored the Empty Stocking Fund since about 1920. Last year, readers contributed nearly $374,000 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. For questions about your donation, call 704-358-5520. For questions about helping families, call Salvation Army Donor Relations: 704-714-4725.
Total raised so far: $46,744