Nathaniel “Pee Wee” Lee had a full career in and around Chapel Hill for almost 27 years until his declining health forced him into homelessness
By Matt White | Photo by Jonathan Young
His name is Nathaniel Lee, but everybody calls him “Pee Wee.”
He got the name from his mom, Helen Ruth Lee, who began calling him Pee Wee as a baby, when the family lived just north of Durham in Roxboro. By the time they moved to his grandfather’s sharecropper farm on Hatch Road west of Carrboro when Pee Wee was about 5, the name had stuck. Farm life, it turned out, suited him.
“We grew everything,” Pee Wee says. “Tobacco, tomatoes, peas, wheat, watermelon and cantaloupe.”
As a teenager, Pee Wee learned masonry and had a full career in and around Chapel Hill in the trade. As much as any local developer or politician, Pee Wee spent his career literally building the town, having laid the bricks that make up dozens of apartments, offices and homes that still stand to this day. If you’ve ever walked past the intersection of Henderson and Rosemary streets, right behind the post office downtown, you might have noticed the large retaining wall on the corner. The wall is Pee Wee’s work and holds together two sides of a small grassy knoll, with a large shade tree – the only green space on the block.
In all, Pee Wee spent 27 years helping create the look and feel of Chapel Hill, until one early morning in 1995. Driving to a job at 5 a.m., Pee Wee suffered a stroke. For weeks afterward, he could not speak or control basic motor function. And though he would regain speech and basic movement, his years as a mason were over.
“I did a lot of rehab,” Pee Wee says. “I tried to still work, but I couldn’t.”
After the stroke, he says, his medical issues multiplied. “I’ve had double bypass surgery, two heart attacks and a double hernia,” he says. “I got all kinds of heart medicine, fluid pills and pain pills.”
As his health declined, so did his ability to afford housing. In the decades since his final day on the job, he’s faced long periods of homelessness, often sleeping outside near the buildings he’d helped construct.
“When I was working, I never had a problem finding a place at all,” Pee Wee says.
For years, he was well known around downtown, moving in and out of shelters, spending time walking Franklin Street, sometimes stopping in at Chapel Hill Sportswear. He spent three years living in the woods near Southern Village before moving into a room at Inter-Faith Council for Social Service’s SECU Community House with two roommates earlier this year.
“They’re better than some of the guys I’ve [lived with],” he says. “We talk a little bit; most days we go to sleep around 7:30 or 8 p.m.”
Pee Wee’s handiwork can be found all over Chapel Hill, but he recently found a new home that quite literally has his name on it. In June, Pee Wee moved into one of the first three Pee Wee Homes on the grounds of The Episcopal Church of the Advocate, a congregation headed by the Rev. Lisa Fischbeck, on Merin Road.
“Our congregation was founded in 2003 without land and [a] building,” Lisa says. “We determined that if we ever [acquired] land, it would be used to the benefit of our community and not just our own use.”
To build the homes, the church teamed with local architect Sarah Stehli Howell (who has since moved to Asheville) and nonprofits that work in affordable housing, including the Community Empowerment Fund and Self-Help Credit Union in Durham. A grant from the Town of Chapel Hill covered about half of the project’s cost, while the remainder was provided by Strowd Roses, Inc., entrepreneurial classes at Kenan-Flagler Business School, the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina and local donations.
The name “Pee Wee Homes” is both a play on the size of the houses, which are slightly more than 300 square feet, and also a reminder that the cost of rent in Chapel Hill has risen so dramatically that Pee Wee now finds himself priced out of basic housing that he may have helped build.
“Pee Wee Lee really exemplifies the person we’re trying to reach,” Lisa says. “He’s well known in the region, he’s been here a long time, he’s helped to build [Chapel Hill], yet he couldn’t afford to live here.”
When first announced, the project received more than 20 applications for the three homes, Lisa says, with residents selected based on income levels, history of homelessness and access to alternative housing, like local family. Pee Wee has a fixed income of just $750 per month, and his rent will be set at less than 30% of that total, some of which will be deposited in an account that he can one day tap into for emergencies or to help move to another home.
Pee Wee already knows how he’ll spend much of the time near his new home: “Going fishing.”
The Pee Wee Homes are just steps from a 1-acre pond the church has long kept stocked with bass, brim and catfish. “People catch stuff out there all the time,” Lisa says. “They’ll be able to fish all they want.”
Pee Wee says fishing will be mostly for fun, but he’s got his eyes open for a possible meal. “I throw them back in,” he says. Most of the fish are too small “to be able to cook, but if they are big enough, I will.”
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