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Recent Grads' Film Project Reveals Fuller Picture of Homelessness in Charlotte

by Davidson College

Last spring Davidson seniors Evan Carter '12, Sara Jones '12 and Jacquie Morges'12 produced in an independent study course a documentary about Jesse, Teresa and Gary –three of more than 600 homeless individuals in Charlotte.

"The stories in this documentary (Unheard Voices: Stories from the Homeless) are not universal," said Morges. "They are as varied as the people. But their pain, their struggle, and their perseverance is a theme that rings true for many. "

The documentary aims to capture experiences of the individuals to negate the stigmas often associated with homelessness, such as the idea that the homeless refuse to find jobs. In reality, almost half of Charlotte's homeless are employed, but minimum wage salaries cannot cover the cost of housing. Other homeless, like Teresa, are actively looking for work.

"When my husband died in 2007, I just let go," Teresa said. "I've been trying to get out of it, but it's a slow process. When there's no jobs and people see on a job application that you're homeless, it's already a strike against you."

When Teresa's not visiting job fairs or following up on applications she volunteers with the Lion's Club.

"People don't realize how many homeless women are out here, and with children too," Teresa said. "If you're a homeless woman, you have less options than a homeless man. "There are fewer shelters for women, and on the street you have to worry about homeless men giving you a hard time."

Teresa decided to give her daughter up to family rather than have her become one of more than 550 school children on Mecklenburg streets. As Teresa continues her job search, she's also back in school to become a more competitive job applicant.

Another stereotype paints the homeless as hopeless drug addicts. However, while Gary and many others have struggled with addiction, most strive towards a stable lifestyle.

"There's nothing more important to me than my family and my sobriety," said Gary who, after 23 years of living on the streets, has finally moved into a home.

"I tried something in college that was a mistake," Gary said. "I tried cocaine and was addicted. We all make mistakes, but you can't let mistakes keep you down, even if it's a mistake like mine that lasts 26 years."

After two decades on the streets, Gary is now clean and benefits from Charlotte's affordable housing efforts. "Homelessness does not make you a bad person," he emphasized. "It just means you're in a bad situation."

Morges and Jones first met Jesse, Teresa and Gary through Urban Ministries, an interfaith non-profit in Charlotte dedicated to bringing community members together to end homelessness. Morges became interested in the issue her first year on campus by participating in an "Alternative Break" trip where students experience homelessness firsthand. She and Jones later became leaders of the on-campus group Ending Poverty in Charlotte (EPIC). Through EPIC, students like Morges and Jones work with Urban Ministry to address physical and emotional needs resulting from poverty.

Carter, an experienced videographer, heard about Morges and Jones' desire to tell the stories of homeless people and offered his expertise.

"We want more students and community members to realize the severity of this issue," said Jones. "We aren't trying to force people to think one way or the other, but we want to enable social changes by truthfully showing the facts, giving viewers ideas of what they can do, and providing them with the tools necessary to create change."

Homelessness is a big problem in Charlotte, but it's not going unaddressed. In 2002 the city established "Out of the Shadows, a ten-year plan to reduce the prevalence, duration and impact of homelessness in Mecklenburg County." Since the project began the number of people without homes has been drastically reduced. Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx '93 proclaimed 2012 as "The Year of Our Neighbors" to encourage citizens to help end homelessness. This news gives hope to people like Jesse, a Vietnam Vet who has been on the streets since 2009.

"I got high blood, I got gout and I got bronchitis," said Jesse. "I'm older, and when you get older, your health changes on you."

Jesse is also older. He worked all his life, then retired and encountered significant medical expenses. Then there was more hard luck. "I got myself into a situation where I trusted a lady," explained Jesse. "I kept all my money for rent and bills with her. She started stealing. The next thing I know, I was out the door; no money, no place to stay and you can't stay nowhere for nothing."

Carter said, "Spending time with Jesse, Gary and Theresa gave me a glimpse into their daily lives. I hope this film will do that for other viewers."

Morges and Carter completed the project through an independent study course with Associate Professor of Anthropology Fuji Lozada. Jones conducted the interviews through an independent practicum with Nelson Professor of Psychology Cole Barton. After five months of interviewing, video recording and editing, the three completed the project upon graduation last May.

Morges has gone on to do missionary work with "Adventure in Missions" where she is traveling for 11 months in 11 countries doing service work. Jones accepted a position as a secondary school teacher at a boarding school for children of low-income farmers in Thessaloniki, Greece. Carter spent his post-graduation summer in Haiti filming video for the "Papay Peasant Movement," a Haitian organization focused on peasants rights, agricultural techniques, and education. He is now looking for a job in video reporting with a production company.