For five years, Mike and Karen lived in the woods beside the Siler City Walmart.
They searched through dumpsters for food and clothing. Swallowing their pride, they panhandled, asking for money …
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For five years, Mike and Karen lived in the woods beside the Siler City Walmart.
They searched through dumpsters for food and clothing. Swallowing their pride, they panhandled, asking for money for food, or gas canisters to light the camping stove that kept them warm at night. In the summers they fought off copperheads and coyotes, and during the winter they fought off the cold, watching icicles form above them on the roof of their tent. They never envisioned a life like this.
Years prior they had a place in Pleasant Garden. And they had a car. Karen worked as a waitress, and Mike did odd jobs. But a criminal charge when he was 17, along with untreated schizophrenia, kept Mike from being able to find and keep a good job. When their car broke down and they were unable to pay both their rent and car repairs, Karen lost her job, and one month later they were evicted from their home. They found themselves moving around a bit trying to find their space in the homeless community, eventually making their way to Siler City.
“There was nothing else on my mind but survival,” Mike said.
Donna Smith, Service Center Director for the Salvation Army of Chatham County, met Mike and Karen by chance in the Walmart parking lot. Over the years she got to know them, and would check on them during the cold months to make sure they had gas to keep them warm.
“They were one of the first families that I met, and they were the most chronic,” she said.
In March 2020, Smith approached Mike and Karen with the opportunity of a lifetime. The Salvation Army had just received funding for one family to enter the Rapid Rehousing Pilot Program — a multi-agency collaboration managed by Salvation Army — to house a homeless family for one year and connect them with every resource needed to end the cycle of poverty and pave the road to self-sufficiency.
“I was in disbelief,” Mike said.
Within days Mike and Karen were resting their heads in a fully furnished apartment, and taking hot showers — something they hadn’t experienced in years.
“The most amazing thing was being able to turn that stove on and get instant heat and cook something to eat,” Mike said. “Not first having to stand and ask people for money, get food, then hope I have enough gas to cook the food. Just being able to prepare a meal with ease was such enjoyment.”
Although cooking brings him the most joy, Mike says nothing compares to the feeling of security he now has by being able to lock his door.
“The security of being able to shut my door and feel safe, and not worry about people coming up and assaulting you, or raiding your camp and getting gear stolen, that’s wonderful,” he said.
The Rapid Rehousing Pilot Program is funded by Salvation Army, United Way of Chatham County and Chatham County Government. In 2020, United Way of Chatham County directed $53,000 of its COVID-19 Relief Fund to the Salvation Army of Chatham County to assist with homelessness caused by COVID-19, with a portion going toward rent expenses for the Rapid Rehousing Pilot Program.
This first year Smith and others have figured out the gaps, worked through significant challenges, and discovered additional community resources to help determine the feasibility and proper execution of a full-time Rapid Rehousing Program in Chatham County. More than 15 community and government organizations and businesses have played a role in the Rapid Rehousing Pilot Program.
“It’s been a huge community event,” Smith said.
Partnerships & challenges
Mike lived most of his life as an undiagnosed schizophrenic, and then most of his homeless life without medication after losing Medicare.
“I remember walking barefoot in the woods and I couldn’t figure out why I was doing it, and where I was,” Mike said. “I was skirting the edge of society for so long because of my disability. I didn’t cry out for the help I needed.”
Mike was eager to gain control of his mental health. However, due to delays created by the pandemic, his Medicaid approval took five months. Once approved, he and Karen were referred to the ACT Team with UNC’s Department of Psychiatry, and they currently work with more than 15 different people within the team. The ACT (Assertive Community Treatment) Team provides support for individuals with severe mental illness as they move from being homeless or living in a facility to living on their own. The team includes a team leader, mental health professionals, nursing staff, psychiatrist, housing specialist, vocational specialist, and a peer support specialist.
Mike now receives his medications in easy-to-manage daily dosage packets, he received an iPhone from the team to help with communication, and they even give him a ride to appointments if needed.
“They are a wonderful organization,” Mike said. “They help me with anything.”
They are also currently working with Mike and Karen on curbing their hoarding habits — one of their greatest challenges at the moment.
“When you lose everything, and when you come by something, you want to keep it because it’s good,” Mike said. “But I’ve been working with doctors, and Donna’s been helping, too.”
Another thing fueling Mike’s collection of goods is his passion for reconstructing and fixing things.
“He is an engineer,” Smith said, and she hopes he can eventually earn an income with his engineering brain. Mike built the bicycle he rides 20+ miles each day, putting parts together to form a reliable ride of his own.
Mike and Karen are both individually working with Central Carolina Community College, exploring career paths that can lead them to become self-sufficient.
Nikia Jeffries, Education Navigator at CCCC, works with the Chatham County Employment and Training Program, and knew Mike and Karen while they were homeless. She is now working on a plan with them focusing on the small business and culinary programs.
“The first time I met Mike and Karen they were eager to make a change,” Jeffries said. “Each time Donna and I speak with Mike we can see his growth and willingness to continue to move forward to achieve his visions and dreams of having the security and peace that he deserves.”
Smith said Mike is struggling to find a sense of purpose. She hopes the ACT Team and Central Carolina Community College will help with that.
“He’s not living in crisis now, so he doesn’t know what to do with his time,” she said. “And with COVID, everything is shut down.”
The ACT Team is also working to get Mike disability benefits, but it’s a long process, Smith said.
Despite the current challenges, and fear of the unknown, Mike and Karen remain optimistic and committed to their goal of becoming self-sustainable.
“I want to hopefully get some sort of business going for myself and my wife, if she wants,” Mike says. “I’d like to be able to generate the funds that I need to keep this life. Five years is a long time camping, and it seems like it was forever.”
Mike says he also wants to help others who are in similar situations he was in. And his main goal, he says, is to just feel human again. “I just want to be accepted in society like everybody else,” he said.
Jeffries believes Mike and Karen’s spirit and desire to help others will help drive them to achieve their goals.
“Mike and Karen have a testimony to share,” Jeffries said. “They can attest that it is not easy to overcome life’s challenges, but when someone is dedicated and willing to accept guidance, they can and will make a difference in their lives. Mike and Karen have made an impact on my life and we will continue to support them as they work towards their goals.”
Smith calls herself lucky to be part of their transformation.
“It’s very humbling to see how far they’ve come, and to see Mike evolve and get excited and thinking of things other than day to day crisis,” Smith said. “This program helps allow them to dream and look at something other than ‘how am I going to get through today.’”
The Rapid Rehousing Pilot Program typically lasts one year, but due to delays and unexpected challenges surrounding the pandemic, Smith has requested additional funding from Salvation Army to allow for a 6- to 12-month extension of services for Mike and Karen. She is unsure if the extension will be granted due to a shortfall in donations in the current budget year.
Mike hopes he can continue to share his story and inspire people to be kind to those in need, and to give what they can. He also worries the homeless population will continue to grow because of the pandemic.
“The people with the hearts that give, please don’t stop giving,” he said. “Look into your heart and if you feel like giving to someone or an organization, just give. It really is a good feeling.”
The United Way of Chatham County funds 22 programs managed by its 15 nonprofit agencies that specialize in the education, financial stability, and health of Chatham County residents. In 2020 the United Way provided an additional $100,000 to agencies with urgent COVID-19 related needs. For more information on the agencies and programs funded by United Way, volunteer opportunities, or to make a donation, visit www.unitedwayofchathamcounty.org.