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Homelessness in Charlotte rises to record levels during pandemic

homeless camp under bridge
Jesse Steinmetz
People experiencing homelessness live under a Charlotte highway overpass.

The number of people experiencing homelessness in Mecklenburg County rose to its highest level in more than two years this past winter, and the number has remained higher than in past years, according to data collected by the county.

Local organizations are stepping in help to get people into homes but homeless advocates say the city's lack of affordable housing is compounding the problem.

As part of our series Rebuilding Charlotte, WFAE's Nick de la Canal spoke with WFAE's Morning Edition Host Marshall Terry about what the county and other local organizations are doing to get people into homes.

Marshall Terry: Nick, just how much has homelessness increased this past year?

Nick de la Canal: Well, the county has been tracking the number of people who stay in shelters or who reach out to the county and say they're homeless. It's really our best guess of how many people are homeless at any given time in Mecklenburg County.

And if you look at these numbers, it appears there was a significant drop in homelessness in the first few months of the pandemic. That's when the eviction moratorium went into effect and stimulus checks were going out.

But then, as the pandemic wore on, and especially into the winter of last year, it appears homelessness in the county began to rise very quickly. From November of last year to January the number jumped by almost 900. And since last December, the county says more than 3,000 people have been homeless, and the county says the peak in January was the highest they've seen since they began tracking this in 2019.

Mecklenburg County
The overall number of people experiencing homelessness in Mecklenburg County peaked in Jan. 2020 at 3,456, and has remained elevated compared with past years, according to data compiled and presented by Mecklenburg County's Community Support Services.

Terry: Do we know why homelessness has been rising so quickly?

De la Canal: Well, there are a multitude of reasons why a person might lose their home. We know lots of people lost their jobs during the pandemic. We did have the eviction moratorium, which only protected people from being evicted for nonpayment, and the burden was on the renter to invoke those protections, so lots of people were still getting evicted.

Interestingly, the county's data shows one of the groups that saw the biggest rise in homelessness has actually been families.

Before the pandemic, there were typically 200 to 250 families who were homeless at any given time, according to the county, but that number has jumped to between 300 and 400 families. And it's been hovering in that range ever since last October.

Terry: Why families? What could be behind that?

De la Canal: Well, I asked that question to Deronda Metz. She's the director of social services for the Salvation Army's Center of Hope Shelter.

She said before the pandemic, many families — if they were to get evicted or lose their home — would typically move in with other family members or friends, and she says that has changed.

Deronda Metz: When the pandemic came and people had to practice social distancing, you know, a lot of people had to leave the households where they were. People came to us and said my family told me to leave because of COVID. They were afraid, especially if it was a family that they had to move around some.

De la Canal: And consider that maybe the family's grandmother or aunt who would have housed the family — maybe they lost their job because of COVID-19 so they couldn't afford to take them in. And also, once a family does spend a night at a shelter, it might become even harder for them to leave because their family or friends might be afraid of COVID-19 transmission.

Mecklenburg County
The number of families entering homelessness has been on the rise during the pandemic, according to data collected and presented by Mecklenburg County.

Terry: So Nick how are the county and other organizations responding to this? Have they been able to keep up with the demand for shelter?

De la Canal: Well increasingly, we're seeing the county and other organizations use hotels to house the homeless. Not only has the county relied on hotels to house the former Tent City residents, but the Salvation Army has also been housing families in a hotel that they've been leasing since June. They're also planning to purchase the hotel in January and keep it as a shelter.

The organization Heal Charlotte is raising money to buy a hotel off I-85 for transitional housing.

And recently the organization Roof Above said it plans to use a $1 million gift to turn a former hotel into 88 apartments for people experiencing chronic homelessness. That's expected to open early next year.

Terry: And what about traditional shelters? Are there plans to expand capacity?

De la Canal: Yeah. The Salvation Army says there were days this past winter when their shelter and hotel rooms were maxed out. So they do have plans to expand their women and children's shelter by 50 beds.

And Roof Above just opened its new men's shelter. Residents there had been living in a hotel as an emergency shelter. Roof Above's CEO Liz Clason-Kelly says isolation was a pretty big issue for the men living in that hotel, but in the new Howard Levine Men's Shelter, they'll live what she calls "pods," giving residents a blend of community and privacy.

Liz Clasen-Kelly: There are pods, but the pods are open so we have high visibility in terms of staff members, which can support safety. But also you have a little bit of your own space.

De la Canal: And that shelter will have 64 beds. That is lower than what they originally planned for because they had to incorporate social distancing into the design plans.

homeless camp.jfif
David Boraks
A homeless camp at 12th and College photographed in August 2020. A survey of the camp on Jan. 15, 2020 found 84 people living there.

Terry: What about the long-term goal of getting these people into permanent homes?

De la Canal: That is the crux of the program, Marshall, because, in the end, that's what these organizations are trying to do.

They're connecting these people with caseworkers, getting them approved for housing vouchers, but the problem is Charlotte's affordable housing is very limited, and so is the number of landlords willing to accept housing vouchers.

I asked Karen Pelletier with Mecklenburg County what she thought was the biggest thing that we needed to solve the homelessness crisis right now, and this was what she told me:

Pelletier: It really is the lack of landlords renting units. We have 62 people remaining from our encampment hotel that all have a subsidy and a case manager working with them, and they can't find housing. And that's just a small portion of all the other individuals we have in our community who have a subsidy and a case manager, and still can't find a unit.

De la Canal: So in other words, the biggest thing the city needs to solve homelessness right now is simply homes.

Terry: Nick, there's a five-year plan in the works to combat homelessness. How's that coming along?

De la Canal: Well, it's still in the drafting phase. It is a collaboration between the city, local nonprofits, and private companies like Atrium Health, Charlotte Center City Partners, and Bank of America.

There are two virtual meetings coming up this week where residents can share their thoughts with people who are drafting this plan. One is tomorrow at 3 p.m. and the other is Friday at 1 p.m., and we'll have links at wfae.org.

Terry: That's WFAE's Nick de la Canal. Thank you.

De la Canal: You're very welcome.

Nick de la Canal is a reporter for WFAE covering breaking news, arts and culture, and general assignment stories. His work frequently appears on air and online. Periodically, he tweets: @nickdelacanal