On Exit 10A, off Interstate 77, most every morning, someone holds a sign.
Some days, it's an older man in a ragged Panthers jersey, his arms and legs shaking. On others, a woman in jeans and a gray T-shirt, sitting on a curb, her arms on her knee, her sign in her hands.
"Help me" and "Homeless," the signs say. "Hungry" and "God Bless."
Some drivers hand a dollar out the window off Exit 10A. Far more fiddle with their radio, sip from their coffee, look away. Perhaps they worry how that dollar out the window might be misspent. Perhaps they prefer to help through church offerings or United Way.
Maybe they go right to the non-profit, trusting that others know how to administer the money properly, that they serve best as a bridge between people who help and people who need.
What do we do when that bridge begins to collapse?
Beginning today, in this space, we'll explore the funding crisis facing Mecklenburg County's non-profit community. People running those charities call it The Cliff - a dire budgetary future brought to bear by a global recession and deep troubles at our regional United Way chapter.
In Sunday's Observer, reporters Eric Frazier, Mark Price and April Bethea told you how collectively, non-profits supported by the Arts & Science Council and the United way are facing at least a $20 million drop in available aid.
Last week, ASC announced that grants to major beneficiaries were down 26 percent, year over year. Tomorrow, the United Way of Central Carolinas will tell more than 90 member agencies what funding cuts they'll endure in the next budget year. Some non-profits will lose 40 percent or more. Some will have funding cut altogether.
The crisis is not confined to non-profits. Last week, Mecklenburg County commissioners cut $10.8 million from the Department of Social Services, which fills basic needs of thousands in the county. State legislators will likely announce more significant cuts soon.
All this as the recession has created a greater need for services throughout the county, including an 85 percent increase in calls and referrals for homeless services. The people who come to Exit 10A.
We'll bring you the news of those United Way cuts, and we'll tell you how they will impact Charlotte's non-profits and the people they serve. We'll also tell you what some in the Charlotte community are doing to offset at least a little of the shortfall. Already, we're seeing movement from Charlotte's philanthropic community and smaller, grass roots efforts.
We'll bring it all to you with the help of our media partners - listed over to your right. It's an unprecedented collaboration of Charlotte media - called Charlotte Mission Possible - designed to let you know which critical needs are being unmet in Mecklenburg, and what you can do to help.
Here's one way: Tell us your stories, your needs, your ideas. What do you want us to report on? What needs do you have that might be threatened by cuts? What ideas do you have - short term and long - to help Mecklenburg navigate this crisis?
It's not as simple anymore as checking your United Way box at work - or not checking it in protest. It's about asking yourself what part you might want to play in our most critical charitable moment.