When Shimey Harvey first found out she was getting a public housing apartment at McDougald Terrace three years ago, she rejoiced.
Harvey was living with her best friend in Chapel Hill, sharing a single bedroom with her daughter and son. She worked the night shift at Cruizers, a gas station chain, and got a call from the Durham Housing Authority when she returned home one morning.
“They said, ‘Your lease is ready to be signed’,” Harvey remembered. “I said, ‘I’ll be there!’”
That day, she signed a lease for a three-bedroom apartment in the city’s oldest and largest public lodging, a site long plagued by substandard conditions. But to Harvey, the apartment was a new beginning.
“I cried by myself for an hour after I got back to Chapel Hill,” Harvey said. “It had been so long since I had my own space.”
When her son Robert, then eight, got home from school that day, Harvey put an envelope on the table with the McDougald Terrace apartment keys inside. Open it, she told Robert.
“He looked and said, ‘Keys! Mommy, you got your own apartment!’ He cried and cried,” Harvey said.
McDougald Terrace quickly became home. But Harvey and Robert, now a sixth grader at Lowe’s Grove Middle School, left Jan. 3, when the housing authority started evacuating 270 families after carbon monoxide and other hazards were detected in apartments.
Harvey, Robert, and other affected families didn’t simply lose their mailing address. They lost child care, social communities, stability, and, in Harvey’s case, her job.
Harvey and her son are only two of nearly 900 displaced McDougald Terrace residents, mostly women and their children, living in 16 hotels across Durham.
After multiple residents were treated for carbon monoxide exposure, the housing authority evacuated nearly 75% of McDougald Terrace’s 360 apartments, including Harvey’s. Residents who were not required to leave were allowed to if they wished.
Evacuations were originally planned for a week. Instead, they’ve dragged on for more than a month. After weeks of inspections, DHA found that 211 gas stoves, 38 furnaces and 35 hot water heaters needed replacing or repairing due to inadequate venting of potentially lethal carbon monoxide. Contractors are also repairing electrical wiring, cleaning up mold, and tackling insect infestations in the 67-year-old public housing complex.
After multiple extensions and an estimated $4.3 million worth of repairs, DHA officials have said they expect Harvey and other residents can begin moving back to McDougald Terrace this month.
Harvey wants to get back home. Another week in the Quality Inn & Suites on Hillsborough Road means another week of no kitchen, no job and lots of family anxiety.
Coping with evacuation
Each morning in the hotel, Harvey sets her alarm at 5 a.m. to wake Robert for school. He needs to get up early to eat the hotel’s continental breakfast at 6:30 a.m. or make it to Lowe’s Grove in time for school breakfast.
Once Robert is where he needs to be, Harvey does laundry, stops at the grocery store, and runs other errands. Then, she takes an hour-long trip on two bus routes from the Quality Inn to McDougald Terrace to meet Robert’s school bus. Together, they make the hour-long journey back to their hotel.
“When you don’t have a car, it’s a lot,” she said.
Transportation isn’t the only challenge Harvey is dealing with. Before the evacuation, Harvey worked part-time in housekeeping at Rose Manor, a local nursing home. If she couldn’t make it back to McDougald Terrace in time to get Robert off the bus, that was okay. Friends and family there stepped in to help.
“My child care was my community,” Harvey explained. “Robert’s father lived across from me at McDougald. His godmother lived about four houses down.” Now, with displaced residents spread out across 16 different hotels, Harvey has lost that community — and child care for Robert.
“I can’t bring him to work with me, and I have nobody to watch him,” she said. “So I had to let this job go.”
Harvey resigned from Rose Manor on Jan. 23. Her boss told her he’d hold the job if she could return within a week, she said. “It takes a village, but I don’t have a village right now,” Harvey said. “I have no child care.”
Harvey has worried for weeks that Robert’s health could suffer from this crisis. At McDougald Terrace, she started sleeping with the windows open to reduce the risk he breathed in carbon monoxide. At the Quality Inn room where Harvey and Robert live, packed with snacks and shoes and bags of clothing, Robert has little room to move.
“Our children can’t run and play like before,” Harvey said.
DHA has been providing daily stipends to displaced McDougald Terrace residents. Those living in hotels with kitchens receive $30 per adult and $15 per child each day, while those without kitchens, including Harvey and her son, receive twice that amount. Harvey is grateful for the money she’s received from DHA.
“The stipends they’ve been giving me have helped,” she said. Harvey has used hers to buy cooking supplies for her hotel room, like a microwave and a pressure cooker.
From their room at the Quality Inn, Harvey and Robert can walk to fast food vendors like COOK OUT, McDonald’s, and Bojangles’. But Harvey wants to feed her son healthier meals.
“I just started trying Zaxby’s, because they have salads,” she said. “I’m trying to be healthy for him, but it’s expensive. Money goes quick.”
Eager for normal
Volunteers from across the city have come together to support displaced McDougald Terrace residents. They’ve started donation websites, served meals and coordinated transportation.
Frances Castillo, one of those volunteers, helped start a GoFundMe page for residents. Some of the funds Castillo and the team have raised are used to cook and deliver hot meals to each of the 16 hotels. Harvey and Robert have enjoyed three of those meals so far.
Volunteers also see firsthand the toll displacement has taken on residents.
“One woman I heard from now has a commute over an hour each way to get to work because she’s no longer near a direct bus route,” Castillo said. “Imagine being moved with none of your belongings, across town, into one small room.”
Harvey doesn’t have to imagine. Moving all her family’s necessities — clothes, snacks for Robert and school supplies — from a three-bedroom apartment into a one-room hotel reminds Harvey of all the times she’s spent without a place of her own.
“It’s like I’m in the New York shelter system again,” she said during an interview in her hotel room.
Robert, at home on a weekend morning, nodded his head. “All of us were cramped up in one room when we were there,” he said.
Harvey is frustrated by what she sees as negligence from DHA. She wants people to be held accountable for dangerous conditions at McDougald Terrace, which has failed repeated inspections in recent years. But above all, she wants her life back.
“I want to be able to go to church,” she said. “I want to be able to make my son happy. That’s it. Stability. That’s all I want.”
At top: Shimey Harvey departs her temporary home, Quality Inn & Suites on Hillsborough Road, on foot. Photo by Corey Pilson
Correction: This story was modified to correct a misspelling of Shimey Harvey’s first name.