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See the latest news and updates about COVID-19 and its impact on the Charlotte region, the Carolinas and beyond.

For Those Who Live On The Street, Virus Brings Changes And Delays Dreams

A homeless resident uses a flashlight in a tent at a homeless camp near uptown Charlotte.
David Boraks
A homeless resident uses a flashlight in a tent at a homeless camp near uptown Charlotte.

The number of people sleeping outdoors in Charlotte appears to be rising as shelter programs adjust services because of the coronavirus. These residents are following news about the pandemic, and with a bit of help, taking precautions.

For the past seven months, Franklin has been living in a camp between Interstate 277 and the railroad tracks. A couple of dozen tents are scattered among the trees, some with tarps strung above them. It's all against the colorfully lit uptown skyline. Franklin, who works days as a landscaper, has been following news about the coronavirus, but says he's not overly concerned.  

“No, I mean not really," said Franklin, who did not want to give his last name. "I'm trying to, like, just stay away from a lot of people and keep, like, constantly putting something on my hands at all times, you could say. So, nah, I'm not worried.”  

Shelter And Soup Kitchen Changes

As the coronavirus has spread across the state, homeless service programs are taking precautions and making some big changes. Sit-down meal sites have shifted to takeout boxed meals. The Urban Ministry Center of Charlotte shut down the winter Room In the Inn program two weeks early, sending hundreds of guests in search of shelter. They've begun health screenings of all shelter guests and enforcing social distancing inside.

Some, like the Salvation Army, are trying to reduce the number of residents by finding them motels or other housing. 

Watchmen of the Streets volunteer Todd Miller installs a hand sanitizer dispenser at a homeless camp east of uptown.
Credit Heath Burchett
Watchmen of the Streets volunteer Todd Miller installs a hand sanitizer dispenser at a homeless camp east of uptown.

On Tuesday night, six volunteers from a group called Watchmen of the Streets went from homeless camp to homeless camp near uptown handing out sleeping bags, tents, food and hand sanitizer. 

They're also installing sanitizer dispensers on trees near larger encampments - a basic way for residents to protect themselves from the virus. Franklin likes that idea.

“Right, OK, yes, thank you,” he said, laughing. “And I will definitely use it, I promise you.”

Franklin and his neighbors are already good at social distancing - living outdoors away from crowds. They do face the risk of contracting coronavirus, mainly when they go to soup kitchens or shelters. Officials who oversee homeless services say a "handful" of people have shown symptoms and been quarantined in Charlotte. But Liz Clasen-Kelly of the Urban Ministry Center says as of mid-week, none has tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. 

Some Camps Growing

Meanwhile, in the midst of the virus scare, some encampments are growing, including that tent city with a view of the uptown Charlotte skyline. One resident named Bruce talked as a freight train passed nearby. 

“It was only six of us up here. And now there's probably about 30 of us now,” Bruce said.  

That’s just in the past two days, he added.

Bruce says a couple of people moved in after police shut down another camp nearby recently. Most came after the Room In the Inn program closed for the season last weekend - two weeks earlier than planned because of the virus. (It houses and feeds homeless people at churches, colleges and other sites.)

[UPDATE:  Another possible reason there are more people on the street: They're being turned away from shelters.  On Thursday, Manager Dena Diorio said: "We are limiting the number of people who are getting into the shelters and we are turning people away, which is why we are really trying to get other facilities so that we can put some people in some hotel."  Diorio said the county has leased an unnamed hotel to house homeless residents who need to be quarantined or isolated because of COVID-19 or symptoms.]

Bruce, who once worked at hotels in New Jersey, sounds like the camp's unofficial innkeeper as he helps deal with the influx.  

“You gotta try to accommodate 'em," Bruce said. "And then, people who are down there, if they can get tents and stuff, then we can accommodate 'em by putting them to the side and putting tarps and stuff, then that's what we're trying to do.

“We're just trying to make it to where we are all easier for us to survive together.” 

Heath Burchett (left) of Watchmen of the Streets talks with a homeless resident Tuesday night as the group delivered sleeping bags, tents and food.
Credit David Boraks / WFAE
Heath Burchett (left) of Watchmen of the Streets talks with a homeless resident Tuesday night as the group delivered sleeping bags, tents and food.

Bruce has lived in the camp for about 2½ months with his black cat. He's comfortable despite the virus. 

“Am I concerned about it? No, because I'm outside," he said. "If I was inside, staying inside around a whole bunch of people, I'd be concerned, because it's close space."

Jobs And Housing May Have to Wait

His bigger worry remains finding work. He's been sending his resume out and has a line on a training program that could land him a hotel job. That's if hotels are hiring anytime soon. 

Heath Burchett is the founder of Watchmen of the Streets, which visits Charlotte's homeless camps regularly. He thinks the virus-related program changes, along with closings of public buildings like the library, are painful but necessary. 

“The lack of meals is going to highly affect people that are living out on the streets, and the places that they can go," Burchett said.  "They're probably way safer in their tents, isolated, like everybody else, if they stay at home." 

Safety aside, for people on the streets, dreams of permanent housing and decent paying jobs are probably on hold indefinitely. 

Ray Shore was one of the volunteers with Watchmen of the Streets Tuesday. He's actually homeless himself, living under a bridge near uptown. He said the Urban Ministry Center caseworkers aren't working on housing right now. 

"They're just doing showers and laundry and a bag lunch now and that's sort of put a hold on, on a lot of stuff,” Shore said.

And what is he hoping for?

“For this to get over with, where I can, you know, get me in a place.”

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David Boraks is a veteran journalist who covers climate change for WFAE. See more at www.wfae.org/climate-news. He also has covered housing and homelessness, energy and the environment, transportation and business.