Updated Saturday, Jan. 6, 2018
The long cold snap is keeping homeless shelters in Charlotte busy this week. Shelters were close to full again Thursday and again Friday, when the temperature dipped to 14 degrees. Saturday's forecast calls for a low around 12 early Sunday. County officials say more beds were available Friday night, as more churches hosted homeless people through the Urban Ministry's Room in the Inn Program.
Randall Hitt of the Men's Shelter of Charlotte said demand is higher than he can recall in the past few years.
"I think it's a bit more extreme because of the length of time that it's been cold," Hitt said at the shelter Friday. "I could remember last year, we had an instance where we had 70 to 80 people on overflow. But it was one night and then the temperature broke. Whereas here, it's been a sustained, you know five to seven days."
The men's shelter has added 100 overflow beds. At least 60 have been used most nights, and one night there were 83 extra guests, Hitt said. That's on top of the shelter's normal capacity of 366.
Other agencies also are seeing more demand for services this week. Crisis Assistance Ministry reports an increase in requests for help paying rent or utility bills - to keep the heat on. They're also handing out coats and blankets to those in need.
And CMPD said Friday its officers will begin carrying extra blankets and sleeping bags to hand out. Police have begun a drive to collect blankets and sleeping bags, jump-started by a $2,000 donation from the charitable foundation of retired Carolina Panthers player Steve Smith.
Agency and county officials say local shelters should have enough beds again tonight for everyone who wants one. If demand increases, the county is ready to open an emergency shelter at a park and recreation center, said Peter Safir, the county's homeless services director.
Hitt, of the Men's Shelter, said: "I think that the agencies have worked well together to do added things to make sure we have the capacity. I think the larger question that remains, though, is not why do we have this crisis during a time of extreme cold, but this crisis is still occurring when it's 50 degrees outside. I think it just becomes more poignant because it's so cold and so frigid."
There have been complaints on social media about the area's response. One Twitter user suggested that people were being turned away from shelters "by the dozens." County and agency officials told WFAE that's not the case.
Officials also said rumors of cold-related deaths in Charlotte aren't true. "If a homeless person died, we'd know about it," Safir said.
The Mecklenburg County Medical Examiner's Office said it hasn't recorded any deaths due to the cold this week.
Commissioner Pat Cotham has been out visiting homeless in recent nights, and has criticized county officials for not opening a county shelter. On Thursday, she posted a Twitter comment in response to a WFAE story reporting there were still beds available: "They (are) meeting MOST of demand-and I am grateful. Wish we had shuttle to pick up others and take them to shelters. Couples restricted. Maybe more buses for Rooms at The Inn-(churches) needed. I keep hearing 'missed the bus.'"
An outreach team from the Urban Ministry Center has been out nightly this week trying to persuade some homeless people to come in to shelter. Some have agreed, and shelters report seeing some new faces. But others have refused.
Cotham was handing out chicken sandwiches and hand warmers to homeless people uptown on Thursday night, near the Charlotte Chamber, Duke Energy headquarters and Discovery Place, among other places. She posted several tweets about those who were planning to stay on the street for the night. Some told her to "be safe and get out of the cold."
The temperature fell to 14 degrees in Charlotte early Saturday, according to the National Weather Service. The forecast for early Sunday in Charlotte is 12 degrees. Low temperatures are expected rise slightly in the coming days, with lows of 25 early Monday and 36 early Tuesday. There's a chance of freezing rain Monday morning, which could make things a bit more difficult for people on the streets.