Carmen stood on the steps – her diploma in hand and her future stretching wide in front of her. It was the spring of 1997 – the day of her college graduation.
Over the past several years, she had worked hard as a student at UNC-Greensboro to earn a degree in child and adolescent development. She had dreams and promise, and what many would consider “security” in the form of a college degree. Carmen never expected to find herself homeless – however, 15 years and two children later, Carmen and her family moved into a homeless shelter.
After graduating from UNC-Greensboro, Carmen worked in child care. She had a job at Bright Horizons Child Care that she held for five years, but in November of 2009, Carmen’s second child, a son named Cameron, was born. At first, Carmen took Cameron to Bright Horizons with her where he was in daycare. As an employee, she received a discounted rate, but even at the lower cost, the child care was outside of her means. “Between paying rent, car insurance, utilities, child care – it was too expensive,” Carmen says. To save money, Carmen made other arrangements. Cameron’s godmother started watching him during the day while his mom worked and his older sister Brianna was in school. About five months later, Cameron’s godmother found a job, forcing Carmen to quit hers to take care of her son. “I couldn’t afford to put him back in childcare so I stopped working,” she says.
Without an income, Carmen could no longer afford rent at her apartment, so she and her family moved into her brother’s house where the she shared a room with her children. While staying with her brother, Carmen lost her car because she couldn’t make payments. Carmen was now without a house, without a car, and from December 2010 to May 2011, she was unemployed.
This was her lowest moment. “Being unemployed – knowing I do have a college degree – and living with a family member was really hard,” Carmen says.
But Carmen never lost hope. In June 2011, she found a job – a position at Mallard Creek Learning Center where she had her own classroom teaching 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds. More importantly, the position provided Carmen with a child care option: while she worked, Cameron was enrolled at the center.
Carmen now had a job and child care; however, her new income was significantly lower than at her previous job. She still could not afford her own place. After living with her brother for over a year, Carmen contacted Charlotte Family Housing. On January 3, 2012, she moved into the Hawthorne Place Shelter.
“I was scared,” Carmen says about entering the shelter. “It was a rough moment. I didn’t know what to expect, how it would affect my kids.” While in shelter, Charlotte Family Housing connected Carmen with a social worker who helped Carmen learn to budget and to set personal goals. Carmen began putting 30% of her salary into a savings account, and on March 1, 2012, her saving paid off: she paid for the deposit and first month’s rent of her new apartment in a quiet neighborhood in Charlotte. Carmen had moved again, but this time her move was out of shelter and into her own permanent housing.
When she moved into her new house, Carmen felt “happy, ecstatic, overwhelmed” that after so much chaos, she was now in a stable place. Today, Carmen has a permanent home and continues working with her social worker, but the program has given Carmen more than just shelter.
Through the program, Carmen has learned about budgeting. She continues to work at Mallard Creek Learning Center, teaching 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds. Her salary has stayed the same since she began working there, but now she knows how to live within the means of that salary, and she earns subsidies when needed from Charlotte Family Housing. “It makes me more aware of what I’m spending,” Carmen says about her new financial skills set. “I decide if I need to have [something] or not.”
While financial literacy is important, for Carmen, her kids are her priority. When asked what she’s most proud of, she pauses reflectively. “Being able to move into here,” she states. “My kids finally have their own space. They’re not living with my brother or in the shelter. My kids have space to talk and scream and have toys everywhere.”
Just a peek inside Carmen’s house and her words come to life. Toys sit in boxes while books – coloring books, reading books, old yearbooks – are stacked in a shelving unit in the corner. Brianna sits on the couch leafing through an old yearbook, while Cameron sings his ABC’s to an Elmo toy. Self-portraits and colorful art projects cover the walls that surround them.
“They are becoming stable again – they can be kids,” Carmen says.
Carmen is a lot of things. She is a mother. She is a college graduate. She is a hard-worker. But one thing is no longer true: Carmen is no longer homeless. While she has come a long way, she continues to work with Charlotte Family Housing to ensure a bright future for both herself and her two children.