Hope for those with disabilities

In a city where being homeless and jobless represents a worst case scenario, Susan Robinson and Dwayne Dunn prove there are greater challenges.

They were jobless, broke and living with disabilities.

She has multiple sclerosis. He is paralyzed from the waist down because of a bullet to the back 17 years ago.

Neither has met, but both are clients of a little-known nonprofit that represents one of Charlotte's least publicly supported charities, Disability Rights & Resources. It received only $3,042 in designated money last year from donors to United Way's annual campaign.

United Way of Central Carolinas was able to contribute an additional $110,000 by dipping into the Community Care Fund. That fund, which consists of undesignated donations, is in jeopardy now, due to predictions of a shortfall in this year's campaign.

Susan Robinson had been living homeless with her husband, Steve, and teenage daughter before Disability Rights offered help paying deposits for utilities and rent. That enabled the couple to move into a modest home off Wilkinson Boulevard, but it didn't happen fast enough to keep her 17-year-old daughter from being placed in foster care.

“I wanted that to happen, because it's not safe on the streets for a girl her age,” says Robinson, 43, who has been struggling financially since moving to Charlotte from Winston-Salem in 2006. “I've slept on grass, behind bushes, behind buildings, on concrete, you name it. The only place I didn't sleep was under a bridge. That's when you know you've hit rock bottom.”

Dunn, 34, wasn't living on the streets, but his situation was bad in its own way. He had no home, so he bounced from place to place, including a couple of months this year in an assisted living facility.

“Since July, I was staying at a friend's house and I couldn't get my wheelchair into the bathroom, so I had to use a commode chair,” he says. “I couldn't take showers for months. I took bird baths in the kitchen sink for 30 or 40 minutes at a time.”

He got an apartment last month, thanks to DR&R, and has leads on job opportunities. “I've got peace of mind now,” he says, “because I'm not an inconvenience to anybody.”

Disability Rights & Resources helps dozens like Dunn each year, many of whom are stuck in assisted living facilities because they don't have any place else to go. Julia Sain, executive director of DR&R, says that's like being forced to stay in a hospital when you're not sick. “They are told when to go to sleep, when to wake up, when you will be fed and what you will eat,” she says. “One size fits all and everybody eats the green Jell-O. It breaks your spirit. We give them hope.”

The organization has a broader goal of advocating for all people with disabilities, and that includes making sure owners of public buildings know when they're not meeting accessibility codes. The organization, which receives federal dollars, is also working to increase the amount of affordable housing that is wheelchair accessible, says Kevin Nale, who coordinates that program. He currently has a waiting list of 64 people looking for accessible homes.

Susan Robinson thinks of Nale as an angel. After eight months, her home still has no furniture, other than a bed and an air mattress. But four walls is luxury enough, she says.

“On the day we moved in, we had a picnic of Church's Fried Chicken on the living room floor,” she says. “We talked and we prayed and we rejoiced. Then we slept on the living room floor.”

It was the best night's sleep she's had in years.

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