Her face stitched up and her shoulder fractured, Joyce Edwards boarded a TTA bus 12 years ago and left Chapel Hill for the first time in her life. In Raleigh, a sister waited to help her as she left an abusive relationship.
Since then, Edwards, 49, has been riding in a seemingly endless circle: unemployment, homelessness, a job, housing, followed by unemployment then homelessness again.
Right now, a room in a house on New Bern Avenue is home for her and her 17-year-old daughter, but Edwards was laid off again in November 2010. Every weekday, she gets up at 4 a.m. to travel to a site where construction companies hire temporary workers, but jobs these days are scarce. Homelessness lurks again.
"What I'm going to do once unemployment runs out, only God can work it out," Edwards says.
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Through it all, the Women's Center of Wake County has been a constant in Edwards' life. The day shelter, housed in a downtown Raleigh basement, provides basic necessities, support and housing help for homeless women or those at risk of homelessness.
"I would say our caseload has tripled since January," says Regina Brooks, the center's client services coordinator. "This year, it's been so overwhelming for all of us as a staff and more overwhelming for the people who have never had to come in these doors before."
The Women's Center is just one of the charities in The N&O's Guide to Giving, an online database of charities that need donations and volunteers this holiday season. Find it at bit.ly/giving guide.
Each day, 60 to 75 women enter the elevator on the gleaming first floor of the Montague Building, next to Caffe Luna on Hargett Street, and push "B" for the Women's Center.
"People don't even realize there's a shelter below them," Brooks says. "It's in a basement, for people who are not seen, people who are ignored, people who sleep on the railroad tracks, people who sleep in bags."
Many of the women, carrying everything they own in trash bags, trudge to the center from an overnight shelter.
The center had to convert one of its three dayrooms into a luggage room out of necessity.
In another dayroom, about a dozen women sit quietly across from one another in hard chairs pushed up against metal lockers that line all four windowless walls. The shelter also has a food pantry, a clothing closet, a telephone.
"Everything is leaving out the door as soon as we get it," Brooks says. "Everybody needs everything - a utility bill paid, food for overnight, Pampers for their baby. We just do the best we can."
Most of the women are like Edwards, continuing clients for whom the center is a safety net.
"You can think you've made it, but then there's something that will trip you up," Brooks says. "Then they say, 'Thank God the Women's Center's door is open.' They know that we're always here."
This year, Brooks has seen so many new faces, so many women who never imagined they'd be in poverty, who've lost their jobs and homes or been deserted by husbands.
"And the babies," she says, wiping a tear before whispering again: "The babies."
On an average day, the center sees seven to 10 new clients, many of whom need mental health services, Brooks says.
"It's hard on them to talk about their story," she says. "For some of us, it's hard to hear it."
Listening to Edwards tell her story, though, brings moments of joy. She breaks into an infectious smile as she talks of the path her daughter is on - a path that doesn't go in circles.
Her pride is so fierce and deserved, it makes me cry. Which makes her cry. Which makes Brooks cry.
A daughter makes it
Without the Women's Center being a haven for Edwards during her lowest points, it's hard to imagine that graduation would be on the horizon for 17-year-old Dieisha, who has traveled the hills and valleys with her mom. An older daughter, who dropped out of school like Edwards did, has chosen a life of homelessness and sleeps in a car.
But Dieisha, a color guard member at Broughton High School, scored considerably higher than the county average on the SAT and plans to head to college next fall. She wants to become an obstetrician.
To give Dieisha all the girl has earned, Edwards goes every Tuesday she can and sells her plasma for $60, money that has gone to a cap and gown, a yearbook, a class ring.
"It ain't easy doing it by myself, but she's not going to be without because she deserves it," Edwards says.
"She made it," she says, raising her fists in the air. "Praise God, she made it."