Wake County

Homeless but hopeful: One woman’s struggle to get ahead in a thriving city

She’s homeless and carless, but not hopeless

Vanezza Bates, 31, has been homeless for several months. She and her daughter sleep on couches and floors at relatives' homes. Her car was repossessed. But she is hopeful that she will find work and a home for her three children. Homelessness in W
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Vanezza Bates, 31, has been homeless for several months. She and her daughter sleep on couches and floors at relatives' homes. Her car was repossessed. But she is hopeful that she will find work and a home for her three children. Homelessness in W

Vanezza Bates had been sleeping in her car, knowing it wouldn’t be repossessed if she was inside. She’d fallen a couple months behind on payments, and she didn’t have a home to go to anyway.

But one night, her grandmother said Bates’ 11-year-old daughter, J’Mayh, couldn’t stay with her unless Bates stayed, too. She got up the next morning and discovered her silver 2005 Hyundai Elantra was gone, just as she’d feared.

Homeless and now without a car, Bates and her daughter have continued drifting between the homes of friends and family. While J’Mayh is at school, Bates tries to find work through a temp agency, but she can’t seem to scrape enough cash together to rent an apartment.

In the weeks since her car was repossessed, she said she has received several calls about jobs she can’t accept because she doesn’t have a reliable way to get there.

“I don’t want to sugarcoat it,” said Bates, 31. “I fight the urge every day to give up. Just to say, ‘Forget it.’ It’s easier to give up than it is to keep pushing.

“If I really didn’t care about (J’Mayh), I would just give her up to foster care and disappear completely. Wouldn’t tell nobody nothing.”

Homeless and without a car, Vanezza Bates and her 11-year-old daughter, J’Mayh have been sleeping on the couches and floors of family and friends for months. Travis Long tlong@newsobserver.com

Bates’ struggle to create a better life for her family isn’t uncommon. Homelessness in Wake County increased in 2017, although it declined in North Carolina overall. The Wake numbers, counted during a single night last January, increased about 8 percent to 884 people.

Other measures are even more striking: The number of people who came in contact with homelessness services in Wake County at least once in a given year has increased 31 percent since 2015, reaching 5,500 last year, according to the Raleigh/Wake Partnership to End and Prevent Homelessness.

In the Wake school system, 3,465 students were considered homeless during the 2016-17 school year, up from 2,940 the year before. That’s more than twice as large as any single-year increase since 2009.

These trends might run counter to Raleigh’s image as a thriving metropolitan area with plenty of businesses and job opportunities. The unemployment rate, not seasonally adjusted, in Wake County was 3.8 percent in November, the most recent month for which data is available. That was below the statewide jobless rate of 4.5 percent.

But in Wake, the poorest residents have not shared in much of the success. The lowest 10 percent of earners in North Carolina have seen their average wages diminish 2.6 percent over the past decade, according to a December report by the left-leaning N.C. Justice Center.

Meanwhile, top earners – those in the 90th percentile – have enjoyed the biggest wage increases since 2007. Their hourly wage has increased by about $5, the report says.

“Strong growth is great as long as your wages are growing,” said Patrick McHugh, one of the report’s authors. “But if you’re in poverty in one of the economically prosperous parts of the state, you could be actually falling even further behind compared to someone who’s struggling elsewhere.”

That’s largely because of the rising cost of rent and the decline of affordable housing, experts say. An average apartment in Raleigh rents for more than $900 a month, while an average earner can afford to pay about $750, according to the N.C. Housing Coalition.

Bates said getting an apartment would help her get back on track – with having a job and being a mother.

Vanessa Bates talks with her 8-year-old daughter Audrey Hatcher at Bates's mother's home in Durham. Homeless and without a car, Bates has struggled to find steady employment and sleeps on the couches of family and friends. Bates says she usually waits until he children are done eating before she eats a meal, making certain her children have enough to eat. Travis Long tlong@newsobserver.com

“It’s hard when you don’t have a stable income,” she said. “People are asking more than what you’re able to give. They think you’re not trying, even though you know that you are. But having a home, something I can put down as my address, something I can use for my jobs, to get a place, to get an ID, to use to keep my kids in school – that’s my biggest thing. I really feel that if I do get a place, we’ll come up.”

Bates said she was living in public housing when she was charged with possessing a small amount of marijuana, a misdemeanor. She was evicted and has been unable to get back onto the waiting lists for public housing or for Section 8, a federal program that subsidizes rent payments for low-income families.

Even if she does get on a housing list, it could be years before she gets help. The Raleigh Housing Authority’s waiting list in 2017 had 8,137 names, up from 6,643 two years prior.

The Section 8 waiting list is even longer – 8,741 names, up from 7,570 in 2015.

“If we don’t do something to increase inventory, there will be that tipping point,” said Shana Overdorf, executive director of the Raleigh/Wake Partnership to End and Prevent Homelessness. “We’re serving more people than ever as affordable properties are coming off line. But there’s no incentive for people to build properties for people with little to no income.”

Few options

Vanessa Bates grooms her 8-year-old daughter Audrey Hatcher’s hair at Bates's mother's home in Durham. Homeless and without a car, Bates has struggled to find steady employment and sleeps on the couches and floors of family and friends. Travis Long tlong@newsobserver.com

Bates was born in Raleigh and dropped out of Broughton High School in the 10th grade. She had run away from home, she said, and fell too far behind on her school work while she was gone. She went on to earn her GED in 2016.

She had J’Mayh when she was 19, and then twins – a son and a daughter – a few years later. The twins now live with their father in Virginia but visit a few times a year.

When Bates and her husband, who is not the father of her children, separated in December 2016 after about a year of marriage, she and J’Mayh had to fend for themselves. They left the room Bates and her husband had been renting in Durham and have been homeless for several months now, relying on friends who offer them a place to sleep. They have avoided shelters and have been able to stay off the streets.

Bates’ relationship with her parents is rocky, and her 70-year-old grandmother lives in public housing, where there are rules about how often guests are allowed to stay.

She has had several jobs over the years – dining services at N.C. State University, a hotel, restaurant gigs and now occasional work she lands through temp agencies. Before she lost her car, Bates said she could sometimes make money giving people rides to work.

“I wake up every day at 5 a.m.,” Bates said. “If I can make it to the bus stop in time, (J’Mayh) gets on the bus at 6:13. I leave from there and go straight to the temp agency downtown. If I don’t get sent out, I go to my grandma’s house, one of my friends’ houses.”

J’Mayh attends East Wake Middle School, where her attendance record is spotty. She plays the clarinet in the school band and had to miss a concert last month. Bates still had her car then, but it didn’t have enough gas to get there.

J’Mayh has has big dreams for the future. Maybe she’ll become a rugby player, a scientist, a fashion designer.

“She loves her school, she loves her teachers,” Bates said. “But it’s all starting to affect her.”

Affordable housing

Consultants hired by Wake commissioners say the county is losing between 400 and 550 affordable housing units every year. Raleigh’s supply of public housing has shrunk from roughly 2,000 units in 1998 to about 1,450 today, according to the Raleigh Housing Authority.

With federal programs stagnating and housing costs rising, Raleigh and Wake County are being pushed to attack extreme poverty more actively and creatively than they have in the past.

“The housing authorities, their federal funding is decreasing, if anything,” said Mary Jean Seyda, acting chief executive of CASA, a housing nonprofit in the Triangle. “It is not keeping pace at all with the increase in the need. They’re going in opposite directions.”

Raleigh leaders agreed in 2016 to raise the property tax rate by 1 cent to generate about $5.7 million a year for affordable housing. The city is providing $8.6 million toward a nonprofit housing group’s revamp of Washington Terrace, an affordable-housing complex in Southeast Raleigh. Nearby in East College Park, Raleigh is overseeing the conversion of a public housing project into a mixed-income development.

“You give them a shelter, you give them a case manager to help them, and then you ask them to start working on whatever problems they have,” said Sig Hutchinson, vice chairman of the Wake County commissioners. “But most importantly, we get them off the street. Once they’re off the street, they stop calling 911, they stop showing up in the jails and in the emergency room.”

Vanessa Bates lets her 8-year-old son York Hatcher taste a hash brown while she cooks in her mother's kitchen in Durham. Homeless and without a car, Bates has struggled to find steady employment and sleeps on the couches of family and friends. Bates says she usually waits until her children are done eating before she eats a meal, making certain certain her children have enough to food. Travis Long tlong@newsobserver.com

But Bates is skeptical that such projects will help her. Families with a steady income, even if it’s not much money, would surely benefit. But she doesn’t have any savings, and without a car, finding steady work will be harder than ever.

“A lot of the affordable housing conversation does gear toward people with higher incomes because it’s easier to do,” said Terry Allebaugh, community impact coordinator with the North Carolina Coalition to End Homelessness. “None of it’s easy, but it’s easier relatively.

“Our discussions of affordable housing should really be focused on people with lower incomes, people moving out of homelessness,” he said. “If you’re not careful, you’ll spend all your time and energy focusing on people who are doing better, and you’ll neglect people who are in a worse situation.”

The city and county have contributed a combined $7 million toward a permanent site for the Oak City Outreach Center on South Wilmington Street, which is set to open in about a year. An intake and assessment process will evaluate each person’s needs from legal, housing and health perspectives. The center will also offer people a chance to take showers, do laundry and eat meals.

In the meantime, nonprofits are picking up some of the slack, but they are also stretched thin. CASA has a waiting list of about 2,000 people, while it owns and operates about 500 homes.

‘I’ve walked that path’

Bates dreams of one day having a career in social services or nursing – anything to help people in the situation she hopes to leave behind.

“I’ve walked that path,” Bates said. “I know how it feels to not have nowhere to go, nothing to do, nothing to eat. I want to go to college. I don’t want to see people struggle like this.”

Staff writer David Raynor contributed.

Gargan: 919-829-4807; @hgargan