Mecklenburg’s nonprofits and faith community help fill gaps for poor

For years, Mecklenburg County’s nonprofits and faith community have filled some of the gaps for the poor left empty by government programs.

They feed, clothe and help with rent and utility bills. They offer English classes for the newly arrived in hopes it will help them land a job. Some churches adopt schools in their area where there is a high concentration of students who receive free or reduced lunches.

Two weeks ago, Guatemala native David Rivera began taking English classes at Forest Hill Church, which partners with the Harris YMCA and Central Piedmont Community College.

Rivera said learning English is the only way to get ahead “so you can fill out applications and communicate with your manager.”

He moved his family to America 13 years ago and was drawn to Charlotte four years later after relatives told him jobs were easy to find and “the economic life is cheap.”

Ultimately, Rivera found work driving a forklift in the warehouse of an office supply company. He, his wife and three children rent a two-bedroom apartment near South Boulevard.

That area saw some of Mecklenburg’s biggest jumps in people living in poverty, increasing in many neighborhoods three-fold – from 9 percent in 2000 to up to 35 percent in 2010, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.

The unemployment rate in that area leaped from an average of 3 to 14 percent, while median household income tumbled from $44,000 to $34,000. Mecklenburg’s average income in 2010 was $56,000.

Rivera’s neighbors are mostly from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Some residents are African-American. If they find work, their wages are low. Rivera earns $8.25 an hour, a dollar above minimum wage. Once he pays the $650 monthly rent, little is left.

“After the rent, we can’t pay energy bill,” he said. “Because it is not too much rent, it’s not a good area. There is some crime. They steal cars and there is noise at night. I worry for my kids all the time.”

Last year, Charlotte-Mecklenburg police responded to 180 assaults, 80 burglaries and 60 robberies within a mile of Rivera’s apartment complex near South Boulevard, data show.

Fifteen years ago, members of Central United Methodist Church on Albemarle Road in east Charlotte saw their community changing rapidly and began to reach out.

It was predominantly white and middle class. But in recent years, the neighborhood’s many apartment complexes that can be cheaply rented filled with the poor.

The church offers English classes for its neighbors and each week boxes up 40 pounds of food staples. Members grow a community garden and share the produce with poor neighbors. The church also helps Albemarle Road Elementary, where 90 percent of students qualify for reduced or free lunches, said the Rev. Susan Suarez Webster.

Often church lay leader Bobbie Denny and her husband, Langston, deliver food boxes to an apartment complex where she lived in 1971 when she first moved to the neighborhood.

“We set the boxes inside the door and get a sense of their world,” she said. “It’s very sad. They have virtually nothing. They have love and kindness, but as far as worldly things, they just don’t have it.”