Updated 3:33 p.m.
Mecklenburg County homeless shelters are adding beds and relaxing their rules this week to accommodate more people as overnight temperatures dip into the teens or below. County officials estimate that more than a thousand people have been housed the past few nights - well above normal - and there are still open beds.
County officials have faced criticism for not opening a county warming center. But so far, it hasn't been needed, says county homeless services director Peter Safir.
"The men's shelter, the women's shelter and the Room in The Inn consortium of churches all had additional unused beds last night and project the same for tonight," Safir said Thursday morning. "So we've been able as a community to offer sheltering locations for any guests that were seeking it and still have some reserve."
Safir said most shelters are adding beds. For example, the Men's Shelter on North Tryon Street increased capacity by 100 beds by adding sleeping mats and cots. That's above the normal capacity of 366. The shelter's Randall Hitt said Thursday they've averaged about 6o extra guests a night this week, and have beds to spare.
The Salvation Army Center of Hope, on Spratt Street in the North End, hosted about 434 people Wednesday night and has been adding cots, said the shelter's Deronda Metz. It serves women and children and normally has a capacity of 360.
Many shelters that normally close in the morning are also staying open during the daytime, officials said.
The Urban Ministry Center has a shelter on North College Street and runs Room in the Inn - a group of about 130 area churches, synagogues and YMCAs. Most congregations take up to 12 people per night, one night a week. But they're changing their policies this week.
"In the wintertime we're always at capacity. We fill every bed," said Dale Mullennix, the Urban Ministry's executive director. "The good news is with the extreme cold, many of our participant congregations have stepped up to accept more guests than they normally do and others have actually taken on more nights of service than they normally provide."
SOME REFUSE SHELTER
While there are extra beds, some people will remain on the streets, Charlotte deputy fire chief Rich Granger said during a media briefing Thursday afternoon.
"We still have capacity and we still have the ability to add people to our system if needed," Granger said. "But we also have a small population that doesn't want to come into a shelter. They prefer to stay where they are."
Officials say they're staying in camps or living under highway underpasses. Safir said he saw several on his way home from work uptown Wednesday.
Volunteers who work with the homeless are visiting them, and have persuaded some to come in. Those who won't are getting extra help, such as insulated sleeping bags and warmers.
"They feel that they can manage in their little cardboard box set up. I don't agree with it. But you know they can't be committed, they can't be forced," said Safir.
COMMISSIONER CRITICIZES COUNTY
County Commissioner Pat Cotham has criticized the county's decision to hold off on opening up public buildings. She said on Facebook Wednesday:
"I am not pleased at all with the County policy on warming stations. “Sustained wind chill of 10 degrees for one full day” seems an extremely harsh criteria for opening facilities to protect people. I have notified the County Manager and my colleagues and have asked that the policy be adjusted. … Surely we are better than this."
Safir confirmed that the local emergency services protocol calls for a wind chill of 10 degrees before the county would open a shelter based on temperature. But he said Thursday that doesn't mean the county wouldn't open one sooner if needed, such as "shelters either turning away people, or 9-1-1, Medic, and emergency rooms starting to pick up people with temperature related health threats."
So far, none of those has happened, Safir said.
Mecklenburg County manager Dena Diorio responded to the criticism at Wednesday night's county commission meeting. She said the county is working with community groups to make sure everyone has a place to stay. She said the county hasn’t opened a warming center yet because it’s not cold enough under the local emergency management protocol – and because community shelters are handling the demand.
"We have sufficient capacity at all of our shelters as well as Room (in) the Inn for anybody who needs shelter to be able to have it. In addition to that, the shelters and the Room (in) the Inn are reducing their restrictions which will allow people to stay inside during the day which is usually not the case," Diorio said.
The county re-evaluated the situation on Thursday, and says there's still plenty of beds for those who want them. The county said in a statement: "Because these community partners have sufficient capacity at the shelters, there is no plan to open a warming station/emergency overnight shelter at this time."
Safir said Thursday county officials are preparing possible shelter locations in case they're needed.