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Unofficial shelters popular with Charlotte's homeless

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WFAE is part of a media collaboration called Charlotte: Mission Possible that is looking for creative solutions to the unmet needs in our community. Homelessness often falls near the top of that list. The latest count estimates at least 6,000 people are homeless in Mecklenburg County. Advocates and local officials say Charlotte needs more homeless shelters and more affordable housing to meet the needs. But rather than wait for that to happen, some members of the community have taken things into their own hands. WFAE's Julie Rose reports: When you fill every bed in Charlotte's homeless shelters and put sleeping mats down in every spare hallway and office, there's still only room for about 600 people. That leaves literally thousands in need of shelter. Liz Clasen-Kelly sees many of them daily at the Urban Ministry Center where she works. And she says most are not just curling up on a park bench. "There are so many things going on that's not at the institutional level that's about you know people just surviving, people finding a safe place to be, be it for a night, for a week or a few months until they get back on their feet," says Clasen-Kelly. One of those non-institutional options is a kind of under-the-radar shelter where people open their homes to strangers in need of a place to stay. Some even rent homes and operate secret boarding houses that are well-known in the homeless community, but otherwise invisible. Perhaps the most legendary figure in Charlotte's underground shelter scene is 80-year-old Betty Lou Smith. "They call me Mother Betty. I've been all over Charlotte. We were down here on Statesville Avenue and I had 16 mens. I was hiding them. They was homeless. Then we went to Carter Avenue. That's where I was really hiding them then." She hides them because it's illegal to run a boarding house without a permit from the city. And even then, you can't have more than 8 boarders. Mother Betty's been at this for 40 years - the last ten here in Charlotte. Every few months, the police get wind of her new location and the city shuts her down. She just moves. When her rooms fill up, she lets people sleep on her porch. "I would take plastic and close the porch in and had a sign 'Don't freeze out there. Come to Mother Betty,'" she says. It doesn't matter if they're drunk, high or haven't bathed in months, Mother Betty says she takes anyone who comes to her door. She feeds them and keeps track of them like a mother hen. If they have jobs, she has them pitch in for rent and food. Inevitably they end up worshipping with her, too. Mother Betty believes she's on a mission from God to heal and save. "I'm filled with the Holy Ghost," she says, and then breaks into a spontaneous prayer, speaking in tongues. "He's blessing you. You're getting a blessing without even being here! Hallelujah." Mother Betty occasionally preaches on public access television and she relies on tithes from followers to continue her ministry. It's risky living in a rough part of town and opening her home to complete strangers. But she says she's protected by God - and her street smarts. "Listen, I was raised in the ghetto," says Mother Betty. "I carry a pistol and a machete. You wanna see it?" She comes back from her bedroom dangling a two-foot long blade in her left hand and waving an enormous black pistol in the other. "It's the biggest one you can find. That's a Wyatt Earp. Somebody standing by that garbage can, I can shoot 'em that far." Mother Betty says she's only threatened to use the weapon on a houseguest once. At the moment she has just three people living with her, but soon she hopes to rent the place next door and take in 10 or 15 more. There's no telling how many of these underground shelters and boarding houses exist in Charlotte. The county's homeless services office knows of just three, but we encountered at least eight in reporting for this story. An investigation by the Charlotte Observer two years ago found at least 20. The city doesn't keep track of how many permits it issues for boarding houses. Code enforcement manager Walter Abernethy says typically just the trouble-makers get caught. "A lot of the situations like this depend on the secondary impacts," explains Abernethy. "In that I'm talking about garbage, noise, crime, parking. . . all the secondary impacts that might affect adjacent properties." If no one complains and the police are never called, Abernethy says an illegal boarding house is unlikely to get caught. City code is also not always clear on the difference between a secret boarding house and just a bunch of roommates sharing the rent. Of course, the people who move into these unofficial shelters don't give much thought to city codes. Nori Emerson has stayed just about everywhere from the shelter to the sidewalk. She says staying with Mother Betty was a way to stay some where steady despite her spotty income. "So if you have trouble getting a lump sum of money together every month. . . like I can do hair," says Emerson. "So if I can braid five heads of hair a week, I can afford to have somewhere to stay that week." The idea of offering a stepping stone to life off the street is what motivates a number of Charlotte churches and ministry groups to wade into the gray area of boarding houses and group homes for the homeless. "We've got three bedrooms on this end of the house," says Tom Holmes, giving a tour in one of three houses he oversees for NeXus Church, which has an extensive outreach program to the homeless community in uptown Charlotte. They manage to stay within city code by having just four or five people per house. The residents are asked to pay $100 a week if they can. No alcohol, drugs or overnight visitors allowed. They're expected to participate in church meetings, Bible study and regular prayer. Some in the homeless community bristle at the rules and religious expectations that often come with these housing programs. But Holmes is unapologetic. "We feel our best chance for helping the Johns, the Kyles, the Larrys is to give them that sense of responsibility and accountability," says Holmes. "We don't want to be a hotel room where you come pay your money and you're able to stay. We can't change lives on that basis. It's the relationship and the community that we value and that's what we ask of them." Over the last two years, Holmes says only five or six people have come through a Nexus house and gone on to stay off the street. But dozens of others had a safe place to stay for a time, and Holmes says that's success, too. City officials are concerned establishments that violate city code are dangerous for people living there and a nuisance to the neighborhood. Homeless advocates like Liz Clasen-Kelly of the Urban Ministry say turning people onto the street is dangerous, too. "I understand the laws that the police have been concerned about Mother Betty's establishment," says Clasen-Kelly. "I understand why that's been on the books. I also understand why she feels compelled to say if I have space place I need to open it up and create a safe place for folks on the street." As long as there's a shortage of legal places for the homeless to turn, the underground spots will continue to thrive.