“Did you know that…” O’Donald Gaither enjoys a visitor’s company and is good at keeping the conversation going, a skill of his generation before the arrival of social media. He estimates his age at 85 years and he has lived them all in Charlotte.
Mr. Gaither grew up in the Brooklyn neighborhood, a vibrant African-American community that was razed for urban renewal in the 1960’s. When the I-277 expressway loop was built in the 1970’s, he remembers more neighborhoods being torn down “as they got closer and closer.” He raised a family while working as a skilled laborer for a concrete finishing company, but when his wife passed on about ten years ago, he slipped into homelessness. He’s lived on the street, in a parked van, and under the bridges of I-277 that displaced him long ago. “Up under the bridge, you have to crawl down to get into it, and you can’t rest.”
Health problems have plagued Mr. Gaither and he relies on a wheelchair to get around. “The doctor says I need a hip replacement, but at my age you don’t get well from that.” A recent cancer diagnosis was followed by chemotherapy and time in a rehab facility. Amazingly, these issues don’t seem to diminish his smile or his optimism.
This spring his friend, Bruce, who was also experiencing homelessness, said, “Let’s get you something to eat and get you some help,” and brought Mr. Gaither to our College Street Day Services Center. About that same time the COVID-19 pandemic arose. Roof Above and community partners began identifying unsheltered individuals with health risk conditions to be moved into motels, and he was offered a room to safely shelter in place. “But I would get lonely without Bruce,” Mr. Gaither explained, so an arrangement was made that he could share the room with his friend. A housing plan is in progress to get him into an assisted living facility. In the meantime, he can be found sitting on the walkway outside his door, laughing and talking with other guests.
When asked what he’d like the Charlotte community to know about his journey, Mr. Gaither minimizes his life’s difficulties and shines his positive light on the present moment. “I hope [they] have better luck than I did and don’t run into the problems I had. Now I rest better and I have something real great to eat all the time. And I thank God I’m sitting right here talking to you!”
Economic opportunity in our city has moved many people forward but left too many others behind as neighborhoods change. We believe that every person in our community is our neighbor and deserves a safe roof above their heads.