‘Us against the world’: couple endures homelessness amid COVID-19

By Jake Schmitz

At 7:30 a.m., Tony and Davina Edmonds wake up in the tent serving as their home, located deep in the bamboo woods surrounding Interstate 40. It’s raining, which usually means this will be a “low” day for them. They carefully step around the booby traps Tony has rigged using skills he learned during 13 years in the Army. Then they eat breakfast and pray before doing what they’ve done for most of the past month – panhandling.

Tony and Davina stay on opposite sides of U.S. Route 501, known as 15-501, and panhandle there for roughly 12 hours daily. They’ve chosen this strategy so they can interact with people coming from both sides of I-40. They also have a constant view of each other, helping them ensure mutual safety from drivers – and other panhandlers.

“Because there are some shady people out there, I want to keep my eyes on her and make sure she’s okay,” Tony says.

A “good day,” which they attribute to drivers’ benevolent moods, means the Edmonds make between $200 to $300. They then use this to rent a motel room off of the highway. They wash their clothes, shower, sleep in a bed and enjoy other everyday comforts that have become luxuries.

On a “low day,” as Tony calls it, they’ll make between $10 to $20. On these days, they grab dinner and return to their tent, which they call “The Shire,” a reference to Lord of the Rings. Regardless of how bad they’re feeling, they never take a day off.

“If you’re in a bad mood you just don’t make as much money,” Davina says. “It doesn’t do any good just sitting around and sulking like, ‘Why me? Why me?’”

‘You don’t look homeless’: harmful stereotypes

At four p.m., Tony, clad in a neon construction vest, has made about $30. Davina, on the other hand, has hit her “little goal” of roughly $80 for the day, so she’s checking on her husband before they get dinner. The couple’s three-year anniversary is on Oct. 31, and their life together has never looked like this.

Tony is an Army veteran with a degree in marine biology, and Davina is a professional hairdresser. When the pandemic hit, Davina’s hair salon closed. Tony never received his veteran benefits, which can take anywhere from three to five years to deposit, so the couple was forced out of their home. It’s been hard for them to grapple with their homelessness considering their job credentials and experience.

“A lot of people tell me, ‘You don’t look homeless,’ and I thank them,” Davina laughs. “A lady asked me the other day about my nice Ugg boots, and I was like, ‘Yeah, I bought them six years ago. Six years ago, I had money. What do you know?’”

Tony says a few of his Army friends have also recently become homeless, but it’s still been hard for the Edmonds to come to grips with their new life. It’s been especially difficult dealing with negative stereotypes cast upon panhandlers, like assumptions of widespread drug and alcohol use. The Edmonds say they keep to themselves and try to maintain a distance from the other panhandlers scattered up and down 15-501. They often refer to them as “these people.”

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, ‘Are you going to go buy drugs?’” says Tony. “A lot of these people use drugs and stuff, but we’re just using it to feed ourselves and just live,” Davina adds.

‘God’s got our back’: faith and love provide strength to carry on

Despite all of this, Tony and Davina agree that their relationship has never been stronger, and they depend on each other’s support more than ever. They spend their entire day in the same place, always keeping an eye on one another. They also take breaks for meals together every day.

“If we can get through this, we can get through anything,” Davina says. “We rely on each other, and it really is us against the world. And, of course, God’s got our back.”

They cite their faith as a major reason why they’ve been able to endure homelessness. Tony’s handmade sign reads in bright orange and blue text, “ARMY VET Looking for work Anything Helps may God Bless everyone.” They trust in God to provide for them and firmly believe that he will deliver them from this eventually.

“We’re very, very grateful for all the blessings we receive,” Davina says. “God will provide,” Tony chimes in.

For the Edmonds, this is a temporary gig, and they’re treating it like any other job they’ve had. They wake up early even if they’re feeling bad, eat three meals daily, avoid distractions and spend their money wisely. Because of this structure, their relationship and their faith, they’re hopeful – at least for now.

“If you come and see me six months from now and I’m still here, I might say different,” Tony says. “But, I’m pretty sure we’re going to figure something out,” Davina adds.

Edited by Ellie Heffernan 

New life amid 1.12 million dead: One woman’s COVID-19 pregnancy

By Blake Weaver

Elijah Grant Crawford weighed 8 pounds and 3 ounces when he was born on Oct. 6, 2020, at just after 1 p.m. – in the middle of a global pandemic. During his first year of life, most people he sees outside his house will be wearing masks.

His mother, Katie Crawford, announced her third pregnancy in January. Crawford’s mother cried tears of joy while her father just sat in shock. Crawford’s eight-year-old daughter, Abby, jumped excitedly as her nine-month-old son, Joshua, crawled around the living room.

Crawford said she didn’t think much of the flu-like virus she’d heard about on the news that week.

“I saw reports of the coronavirus on the news, and my ears didn’t perk up until I heard there was a case in Washington,” Crawford said. “I still didn’t really pay attention. They kept comparing it to the flu, so I just ignored it.”

Two months later, the World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus outbreak a global pandemic. Much remains unknown about COVID-19 – even less about its effect on pregnancies. While Crawford didn’t have an exposure scare during her pregnancy, she said she felt lonely and helpless in the face of abrupt, potentially long-lasting, changes.

Getting ready for new life amid a nationwide shutdown.

After learning she was pregnant, Crawford spent two months preparing and planning for her new child. She moved furniture around her two-bedroom condominium, while she could still manage, and began budgeting with her husband, Walt Crawford.

She’d recently left her job to stay home and take care of her nine-month-old son. Walt started taking double shifts at Taco Bell, where he works as a general manager.

Cases increased substantially during this time, but Crawford said she still thought it was just a new flu. She remembered the 2009 swine flu pandemic and imagined COVID-19 would spread similarly. Since the swine flu came and went without affecting her, Crawford said she didn’t see any reason to worry.

“I think a lot of panic came from the media reports in the beginning,” Crawford said. “The panic – buying and mask and hand sanitizer shortages – I thought all of it was silly.”

Then, most of the country shut down, including her daughter’s school. Crawford had to create a homeschool environment in her condo while raising her now one-year-old son. Although she was barely showing, Crawford said she already felt the pregnancy’s strain.

“Walt was still working constantly, so we could actually afford this family,” Crawford said. “I don’t want to say that I was stuck taking care of the kids because I knew I wanted to stay at home anyway and loved every minute of it. The atmosphere was just different.”

Her daughter was also feeling the pandemic’s impact.

“We try to play as many games as possible to stay happy,” Abby said. “Mom keeps us focused on the happy things while everything seems sad.”

Facing pregnancy alone and losing supportive social connections

Crawford used to shuttle her daughter to and from school and countless extracurriculars, which gave her time to talk to teachers and other parents. She frequently gathered with a group of parents who shared dessert recipes in the back of the gymnasium while their children played.

“The world suddenly shut down, and I didn’t even get to say a ‘See you soon’ to everyone I saw on a daily basis. I wanted to see my friends and family, but I knew I couldn’t,” Crawford said.  “There was really nothing I could do to fix anything, and that was hard for me. Part of me wanted to go back to work just to feel some part of normalcy.”

During her past two pregnancies, Crawford’s mother, Ellen Cotton, came to her house almost daily to support her. Since she works in a medical support field, she’s had to stay away more often than they both would like.

“It’s hard for me to know my daughter is stuck, and I can’t really go help that often,” Cotton said. “Anytime I’m potentially exposed, I’m anxiously counting down the days until I can go see Katie.”

Each prenatal care checkup reminded Crawford of the pandemic’s painful realities. No one was allowed to come with her – not even her husband. The couple said not being together for Crawford’s appointments, like they had been for her previous pregnancies, was one of the worst feelings.

“I struggled to hold it together those days,” Walt said. “I felt like I wasn’t there for my wife and child.”

Giving birth and looking toward the future.

When the time came for Elijah’s birth, the Crawfords packed two weeks’ worth of clothes and made arrangements for Katie’s mother to watch the kids. They wouldn’t be allowed out of the hospital, and no one was allowed to visit.

“It felt much more like an operation than anything else,” Katie said. “This is supposed to be one of the happiest times of our lives, and it still is, but there isn’t the same energy.”

The doctors and nurses wore extensive personal protective equipment, but the Crawfords did not wear any. They only were asked to do so if they left the room, which they rarely did.

“I was not going to give up a last morsel of comfort when I was about to give birth,” Crawford said. “I rarely wore a mask the last six months, and I’m not going to now unless I absolutely have to.”

Now a big brother, Joshua has developed an aversion to masks and hides from people wearing them. He only responds to someone if they pull their mask down to show their full face – a practice that Katie doesn’t mind but her mother warns against. Abby said she tries encouraging her brother to be comfortable around masks, given that they will be commonplace for the foreseeable future.

“Joshua has spent this year seeing everyone suddenly start wearing masks,  and I think it’s a shocking change for him. He’s so young, but he saw people without masks before, and I think he remembers that,” Abby Crawford said. “Eli won’t have that. He’s just going to see masks everywhere. This is just how it is right now.”

Edited by Ellie Heffernan

Historic Hillsborough inn to open after extensive renovation

By Korie Dean

Elise Tyler immediately saw the for-sale sign outside of the dilapidated Colonial Inn. The building’s exterior, once painted an almost blinding white, had faded into a dull gray after decades of neglect. Sections of siding were rotting, and some of the inn’s windows were boarded up.

Tyler had felt drawn to the two-story antebellum inn since she moved to North Carolina from Cape Code in 2007.  She often spent evenings at Tupelo’s Restaurant, a now-closed downtown dinery where her roommate at the time worked. She said she would glance up West King Street and stare at the nearby inn, captivated.

After 10 years of admiring the inn from outside, Tyler had a chance to enter. She saw the inn’s owner standing on its cobblestone front porch, and he let her walk through the building.

Tyler said the inn’s lobby only had natural lighting, which seeped in through its original windows.  Paint and 1950s-era wallpaper fell to the floor in flakes. The water-stained ceiling sagged in a pronounced “U” shape as if it were smiling. The green carpeted floors were soaked with 20 years of moisture from the caved-in roof. This filled the room with the stench of mildew.

“It was in complete disarray, and I was totally, completely in love with it,” Tyler said.

She envisioned a bride standing on the original handcrafted wooden staircase. She pictured a group of old friends laughing in a state-of-the-art event space, celebrating their long-awaited retirement. In the next room, young professionals could unwind after a long day’s work in a swanky, moody bar.

Tyler said she did not know if her dream was possible. Could the building be repaired? Could she find others to help her?

Getting help and overcoming obstacles

Determined to make her dream a reality, Tyler assembled a team that shared her fearless vision.

Justin Fejfar, a structural engineer, drafted plans while his wife, Sunny Fejfar, researched the inn’s history and picked out decor. Reem Darar, a general contractor, brought her expertise for historic preservation. Majority investors Joe and Emily Goatcher, provided financial support, along with nine minority investors.

And Tyler, now the inn’s general manager, led the project with a fiery passion. She said the team members fit together so perfectly it felt cosmic.

After eight months of planning, including attending hours-long meetings to convince town leaders that their dream was possible, the team broke ground.

They still encountered problems. Subcontractors refused to enter the inn because of reported ghost sightings and asbestos. COVID-19 delayed the project’s completion for weeks.

Through it all, they became a family, Tyler said.

We’ve had to rewrite some of the course of our lives to make this happen,” Tyler said. “That creates a very strong bond.”

A rich, forgotten history

When Tyler first entered the Colonial Inn in July of 2017, the building was merely a sad relic of the former heart of Hillsborough’s tourism industry.

Although the founding date featured on its iconic mid-20th century marquee cites 1759 as the inn’s founding date, historical records suggest it was built in 1838. The inn hosted countless weddings, celebrations and Sunday lunches throughout its almost 200-year history.

Union soldiers ransacked the building after the Civil War, stopping only when they saw the owner’s wife display her husband’s Masonic apron from the balcony – a silent cry for mercy.

And while there’s no proof that former President George Washington was among the inn’s earliest guests, this story is a centerpiece of local lore, passed down by generations.

The inn closed in 2001 after its owners ran into financial trouble. The owner who followed them promised to renovate it, but he let the building fall into disrepair.

Private citizens and community groups tried to save the inn throughout the years, but in 2015, the Town of Hillsborough declared eminent domain and charged the aforementioned owner with demolition by neglect.

When Tyler’s team placed an offer of more than $850,000 in 2018, the inn officially changed hands.

From the beginning, the team wanted the inn to reclaim its place as Hillsborough’s front porch. They envisioned a building where lifelong residents could relive nostalgic memories and tourists could relax after a day exploring the historic town.

Every decision, from paint colors to light fixtures to the font on the new marquee sign, was made with the community in mind.

“There was no reason to do this whole thing if it wasn’t consistent with what the community needed,” Tyler said.

Tyler’s team likely won’t be the last to own the building.  Nevertheless, a long-awaited renovation, coupled with the inn’s surviving 19th-century architecture, has cemented its staying power in the heart of Hillsborough’s downtown for years to come.

Realizing a dream

Today, Darar is crouched down, giving a last-minute scrub to the blue and gray ornamental rug in the bar area of the soon-to-be operational inn.

“Stop stepping on the rug!” she tells Tyler. “I’m going to have to bring my Hoover in here.”

After three years of planning and construction, it’s staging day.

The owners are putting finishing touches on the 28-room boutique hotel and event space. Soon, florists and caterers will fill the halls as photographers document the final stages of the multimillion-dollar renovation. The inn looks quite different now.

In the lobby, sapphire-colored velvet booths glisten under gold lights, bringing a modern touch to the traditional structure. The original oak floors beneath are freshly mopped, no longer covered by mildewed carpet. The event space, which had to be rebuilt from the ground up, is covered in white and gold marble tile.

The space is ready for a bride and groom’s first dance under crystal chandeliers.

A few missing floor vents, small trails of sawdust and stray power cords make it clear that the inn is still a construction site – but Tyler and her team are almost done.

Looking through 8,000 renovation pictures taken on her iPhone, Tyler says she can hardly fathom that they’ve made it this far. Next month, the inn’s doors will open to the public for the first time with a large celebration.

The power was turned on last month, lighting up the inside of the neoclassical structure for the first time in two decades and illuminating three years of hard work.

Tyler’s husband drove up to the inn late that night.

He said he saw the inn’s warm, glowing light pouring out of its original windows onto the street. And like the beacon of hope Tyler dreamed it would become that fateful day three years ago – the inn welcomed her husband inside.

Edited by Ellie Heffernan