Building healthy people, relationships in the midst of Charlotte housing crisis

For most people without a permanent home, they have countless hurdles to try and maintain a healthy lifestyle. The struggle is exacerbated by the lack of access to healthy food and quality health care.

For the past eight months, Darius Gaskins has been walking a fine line between living on the street and staying in motels.

Two of his biggest concerns are making sure he has a place to sleep and food to eat.

“Being able to afford a decent meal after paying for a room every day gets costly,” Gaskins said. “I’m always chasing, always trying to make sure that I have somewhere to sleep and it never allows me to think about anything else.”

Even with his challenges, with a broad smile, Gaskins keeps a positive tone in each syllable he speaks.

On this particular day, he is part of a pilot program between Atrium Health, ONE Charlotte Health Alliance and Life Project of North Carolina.

The program addresses food access, cooking demonstrations, nutrition education and health screenings for motel residents and community members.

Because there isn’t a grocery store near the motel Gaskins is staying, his choices of food are limited to fast food restaurants and convenience stores.

“I’m looking across the street and I see fast-food restaurants, and if that’s all they can afford or get to they’re not helping their bodies,” said Elaine Jones, community engagement manager for Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute.

So during the 8-week program, Loaves & Fishes will donate food boxes for the participants.  The boxes contain enough food for a week.

“We are teaching them to cook in the microwave which is the only source of cooking that is built into these motel rooms,” Jones said.

Jones begins her demonstration, pulling out noodles, sauce and canned meats to create a meal that was tasty enough for the smiling Gaskins to ask for seconds.

“I think this is great. Children that are staying here can wake up to a nutritious meal and throughout the day don’t have to worry about going to sleep with their stomachs hurt,” Gaskins said.

You can’t miss the colorful bus in the background from ONE Charlotte Health Alliance, where Gaskins went in for a wellness checkup.

“They took my height, blood pressure and weight then they asked if I had any insurance that way they could set me up with that and a primary physician,” he said. “That way I could take care of my health better.”

Life Project NC, which is an outreach of Northside Baptist Church, has been working with these families for nearly a year.

“This is who we are and we’re supposed to love our community,” said Veronica Washington, community outreach coordinator for Northside Baptist Church. “They trust us and when they trust us then we’re able to do life with them and provide them with things they need.”

When members of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department community engagement team show up, food boxes are distributed then some very excited kids line up with them at the ice cream truck.  The smiles get even bigger.

“I am drawn to this neighborhood because of the enormous population of people that have been displaced by homelessness, loss of jobs, lack of transportation,” Jones said. “This is an opportunity to bring them out of the rooms and connect with them on a very personal level.”

With all the barriers that are in place for Gaskins, he has a plan and a path to improve his life.  The support of this collective will make his journey a little easier.

“I want to be in a stable position to be able to call a place home and be able to work a regular job,” Gaskins said. “Just have a regular home with food and refrigerator and be able to work and be a productive citizen.”

“I want them to remember that somebody cares and that they feel heard and they feel seen instead of feeling invisible,” Jones said. “This is giving them breathing room so they can exhale and relax.”

Differences among homeless people, or those lacking a permanent home poses a greater difficulty with getting health care and are harder to treat because they lack a home.

Clearly, this group of caring individuals is trying to change that narrative.

“That personal touch changes a life just by being present and if more people would just stop and observe and take in and get involved this whole world will be better. This community would get better,” Jones said.

As Gaskins walked back to his motel room, he turned around and flashed that big smile, waved, and said, “thank you.”

With all the challenges facing our community, it is obvious that this team will stay in place for as long as it takes to work and serve our neighbors in need.

If you have an inspiring story to share, email Kevin Campbell, WSOC-TV/WAXN-TV/Telemundo Charlotte public affairs manager, at Kevin.Campbell@wsoctv.com.