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Amid Pandemic, Gracious Hands Still Helps Charlotte Women Find New Homes

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David Boraks
Octavia Lindsay moved out of Gracious Hands transitional home into her own townhome in January. "Without Gracious Hands and the volunteers, then I would not be where I'm at today," she says.

During the pandemic, millions of dollars in aid have flowed to programs that fight homelessness and housing insecurity. In Charlotte, the transitional housing program Gracious Hands didn't take a penny, yet it's continuing to grow and help women and children in need.

Gracious Hands started in 2015 in a rented house in west Charlotte. Since then, 270 women and their children have "graduated" to permanent housing. The organization now owns two houses in north Charlotte, each with room for five homeless women and their children. Over the past year, they've weathered the pandemic, said founder Sonja Chisolm.

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David Boraks
Sonja Chisolm is the founder and director of Gracious Hands Transitional Housing in Charlotte. The program has helped 270 women over the past six years.

"We somehow figured out a way not to have any COVID clusters," she said. "Not one person was sick. We kept it clean. We sprayed. We ended up adapting to virtual learning."

Gracious Hands didn't apply for a PPP loan or other COVID-19 aid. Chisolm said she didn't want anything with strings attached, that might dictate how to support its families. The organization's budget already was tiny — only $100,000 a year. They survived, as they always have, on private donations.

But Chisolm said that didn't affect the organization's mission: "During the pandemic, we still were able to transition out … 12 women, successfully," she said.

One of them is 34-year-old Octavia Lindsay, who moved out in January. She's a good example of how the organization helps. She came to Gracious Hands more than two years ago.

"I was in an abusive relationship. And at the time, my daughter was 2," Lindsay said."And I decided to leave. But it was just like, I didn't have anywhere to go."

A friend told her about Gracious Hands, and she got a meeting with Chisolm.

"And I went and she was like, 'I got a good feeling about you,'" Lindsay said. "So I was crying because it was just like, that weekend, me and my baby would have had nowhere to go. And once I came, she let us move in that same day."

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David Boraks
Supporters Bree and Tom Burchinal talked with Gracious Hands director and founder Sonja Chisolm at her office recently.

At the time, Gracious Hands was in a run-down rental house and operating on a shoestring budget. The program was facing eviction itself. After a series of stories by WFAE, a donor stepped in and bought first, one house, and then, a second house for Chisolm and Gracious Hands.

Lindsay moved with Gracious Hands. With more space, the organization suddenly was able to help more women like her.

Chisolm said it's all about support. That includes mandatory career and credit counseling, and classes in household budgeting and building self-esteem.

"In order for them to be in this program, they have to agree to the classes," Chisolm said. "Most places are saying, 'Oh, well, we offer these classes,' and give them a choice. We took that away."

Transitional housing programs like Gracious Hands are a critical link in the housing chain. About 3,300 people are experiencing homelessness in Mecklenburg County right now. For many, temporary housing and support are the route to permanent homes.

Chisolm said her program is about "loving (women) back to life," starting with themselves.

"Once you learn how to love yourself — and that's what we teach — the doors just fly open," she said. "They become butterflies. They believe they … They're on top of the world now."

Women pay $50 a week for the housing, Chisolm said, "to keep them accountable." If they're not working, they're expected to find a job within a couple of weeks. If they are working, Chisholm pushes them to find better jobs. And she requires their budgets to include saving money — half their incomes.

"I sit with them and say, 'OK, well, this is what's going out,'" she said. "And sometimes I may say, 'Well, that means you're just spending too much money, baby.' So we just start talking about what they can let go. And this is more for you to save."

And it works, said Chisolm: "I tell you, I have had 40-year-old women coming here and say, 'Miss Sonja, I have never saved this much money in my life.'"

Some women don't make it, and drop out of Gracious Hands. Chisolm says that's because they don't work hard enough. But she says about 75% of the women move out successfully, as a dozen women did this year.

"One being Octavia, who saved $10,000, raising her credit score by 400 points, paying cash for her car, and now is a homeowner," Chisolm said. "All the rest of them moved into their own apartments, all of them raising their credit scores, solidifying jobs making $15 (per hour) or better."

Octavia Lindsay is on her own now. She has a well-paying job as a contractor making deliveries for Walmart. The townhome she bought in east Charlotte has new appliances and a princess-themed bedroom for her 4-year-old daughter, Taylor. Lindsay is already thinking ahead to when she'll buy a single-family house and start renting out her townhome.

"Gracious Hands is just awesome," Lindsay said. "If it wasn't because of Gracious Hands and the volunteers, then I would not be where I'm at today. And persistence. And, you know, anything is possible. Look at me. I was homeless almost two years ago and now a homeowner."

That kind of success story attracts help and financial support. Bree Burchinal began volunteering and donating recently after hearing how Gracious Hands changes lives.

"The women that come through the door get many of their needs met. And they're not just given housing. They're looked at as individuals with their own set of trauma and circumstances and those things get addressed," Burchinal said. "And Sonja says, 'We love 'em up.' And that is, without a doubt, what happens."

Gracious Hands wants to turn out more Octavia Lindsays, and Chisolm has ambitious plans. The group recently raised $20,000 to help new residents pay for child care, which could help them get jobs faster. And they're planning to open a third house. Chisolm said she has a six-month waiting list for women with multiple children.

Burchinal and her husband, Tom ,have pledged to help buy that house by the end of the year.

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David Boraks is a veteran journalist who covers climate change for WFAE. See more at www.wfae.org/climate-news. He also has covered housing and homelessness, energy and the environment, transportation and business.