After a Charlotte, N.C. hotel shut down in May, some members of the LGBTQ community were left with limited options. The hotel has been in a legal battle with residents over the evictions since April. Deshon Medley, who identifies as gay, was one of those people facing homelessness. He had been living at the hotel since February. Prior to that, he was at a local Budget Inn. When faced with eviction, he got in touch with Rev. Debra Hopkins at There’s Still Hope through a friend at the hotel.
There’s Still Hope is an outreach program of Essentials for Life Ministries. It is designed to provide safe, emergency and temporary alternatives to shelters. While the organization focuses on assisting adult transgender women, the pandemic has increased the need for others like the 23-year-old Medley in the LGBTQ community.
They are currently housing three individuals through the end of the year. All three are currently employed, despite the difficulties in securing jobs during the pandemic. Originally, There’s Still Hope supported people for one to seven days, but COVID-19 forced them to reevaluate and the current program offers six months of transitional housing, support services and weekly groceries. “By the end of the six months, they should be able to be in stable housing someplace,” says Hopkins. Because of the safety of transgender residents, some of whom have been the victims of domestic abuse, Hopkins asked to keep the location of the extended-stay hotels private.
Residents in the program must adhere to certain requirements, including those assigned by the housing location. That includes having a state-issued photo ID and something that Hopkins is adamant about — stopping previous behaviors like sex work or substance abuse. They pay up to $25 a week in groceries and provide bus passes for job search activities or support services during the first three months. Residents are expected to have stable employment by the second phase.
Transgender women are often forced into sex work. The National Transgender Discrimination Survey (NTDS) found that many transgender people participate in the sex trade to earn income or as an alternative to relying on homeless shelters and food banks. Hopkins, who is transgender, understands that reality, but offers a chance where many see limited options. “We can help you, but you have a responsibility as well,” Hopkins explains to new clients during their initial conversation.
The Steps to Stability Program purposively relocates individuals out of areas that are prone to sex work and crime. “You have a place to live. You can go out and catch the bus and walk up to the grocery store — you can do all these things in the locations that I place them,” says Hopkins referring to the clients of There’s Still Hope. With funding limited, it is important for clients to adhere to the rules. “We do 50 questions to find out where they are — mentally, physically and emotionally,” states Hopkins. “We try to plug them into those programs, whether it be substance abuse or mental health issues.”
Medley grew up in the Wilmore neighborhood of Charlotte, an area that experienced massive gentrification in the 2000s. He has not been forced to work in the sex trade, but he has been on his own since he was 18 years old. He has lived on the street and bounced around from place to place over the past year. “I’m grateful for the opportunity that I have now,” says Medley. He is currently working full-time in a warehouse job in Charlotte and has a little over a month left in the program.
Many people that call Hopkins for help do not have any formal education or training — with many of them dropping out of high school. She helps to offer skills-training so they can get stable employment. Some of these partners have helped Medley get back on needed medication since he got in the program, and he is learning how to manage his finances.
The decision, or necessity, to live at a hotel is confusing to some who question the cost and its lack of stability. While rents have declined since the onset of COVID-19, the median rent for a one-bedroom apartment stands at $1,068 according to Apartment List. Most apartments require income history, application and administration fees and some form of deposit. Affordable options in the city are limited, leaving hotels as often the only choice beyond the street or shelters, which also struggle with capacity. According to the City of Charlotte, “the city needs an additional 24,000 units of affordable housing to meet the current need, which means more than 55,000 Charlotteans don’t currently have an affordable place to live.” The city compares that to three-quarters of the Panthers stadium.
Other barriers exist as well. Many renters require applicants to show proof that they make two to three times the monthly rent and many are turned away if they have had any previous evictions. Due to the lack of affordable units, cheap apartments do not stay on the market for long. According to Inlivian, the tenant-based Housing Choice Voucher, otherwise known as Section 8, the waiting list is currently closed to new applicants. According to its website, there are currently more than 6,000 households on the list.
Hopkins has a dream of creating a transitional housing facility in Charlotte for the transgender community. The current housing that There’s Still Hope provides consists of studio-style apartments with full kitchens, something she would like to make permanent. For years, Hopkins has sought investors to help purchase a small, abandoned hotel that can be converted into up to 40 studio units with on-site management. The amenities are designed to help someone experiencing homelessness. “They get a full refrigerator with freezer, so we can stock them with food for up to a month if necessary,” she says. “If you can make your own meals and have your own private space — that’s freedom for a lot of people.”
In a mid-year report on There’s Still Hope’s website, Hopkins says she never imagined the challenges of doing this work. “There are too many homeless trans people, in particular trans women of color, still living on our city streets that desperately need our help, love and support.”
She lives on a fixed income herself and experienced homelessness in Charlotte for nearly two-and-a-half years before receiving help from Monarch, a statewide mental health and human services provider. “This is the door I can walk through,” says Hopkins, remembering that time. “They noticed I was determined to help myself.” There’s Still Hope started from that experience and she tells clients about her success story. She knows that people in society see what they want to see, but she is determined to change those perceptions. “Let me give you a scenario of my experience, and you tell me how you would navigate through this storm that many individuals face.”
In total, There’s Still Hope pays over $1,000 per month to house an individual in the program. In August, they were awarded a #YouAreEssential Grant for $2,000 from Ashlee Marie Preston and Revolve Impact. They have also received grants from Equality North Carolina, Freedom Center for Social Justice, Borealis Philanthropy and recently received $5,000 from the Starbucks Foundation Neighborhood Grants program.
Since starting the program, 24 clients have received housing and five prior to those in the program now have gone on to gain both sustainable housing and permanent employment. Medley hopes to save up enough money to move into an apartment of his own. “I don’t want to be in a motel forever,” he says. He also hopes to volunteer for There’s Still Hope after he graduates from the program.
Hopkins relies on her faith to help her power through this work and often prays for “the spirit of discernment” to guide her. In addition to running There’s Still Hope, she also delivers groceries regularly to those in need throughout the city like the growing number of homeless individuals living in tent encampments near Roof Above’s Day Center. Medley is anxious to help her. Hopkins is always upbeat and determined to help when people want change in their lives, something Medley is quickly picking up.
“Being denied shelter is an unacceptable act in a wealthy and free society like ours,” Hopkins states. “Therefore, our tiny little organization must continue to try and make a difference for as long as we can.”
For transgender adults needing housing support, an online application is available at tshcharlotte3.org and people can call 704-369-4785 between the hours of 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday.
qnotes is part of six major media companies and other local institutions producing I Can’t Afford to Live Here, a collaborative reporting project focused on solutions to the affordable housing crisis in Charlotte. It is a project of the Charlotte Journalism Collaborative, which is supported by the Local Media Project, an initiative launched by the Solutions Journalism Network with support from the Knight Foundation to strengthen and reinvigorate local media ecosystems. See all of our reporting at charlottejournalism.org.