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For two years, WFAE has reported on the Charlotte area's affordable housing crisis through our Finding Home series. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, since 1990, home values have increased 36%, while median household income has gone up only 4%. The appearance of prosperity with new development masks the fact that people are being priced out of their neighborhoods.

Finding Home: More Visible Camps Make Homelessness Hard To Ignore

People living on the street is nothing new in Charlotte. But the coronavirus pandemic has brought encampments into the open, including onto vacant lots near uptown. They're both a highly visible effect of the pandemic and a reminder of Charlotte's longstanding shortage of affordable housing. 

Finding Home

It was 90 degrees and steamy just after a thunderstorm on a recent day at 12th and College streets northeast of uptown. On a vacant lot and nearby sidewalks, somewhere around a hundred people live in tents. Many have been in this settlement since March, when the governor issued a stay-at-home order and businesses shut down. 

“I've been living here almost two or three months in this situation,” Rosalind Webb said.

Webb had been staying in a winter shelter program called Room in the Inn, until that shut down early because of the virus. They paid for a hotel for a week, but then she ended up on the street. 

“I've been in this location. I was on that side," she said, pointing to another grouping of tents. "Folks started hating on me on that side because my tent was bigger than everybody else’s. Now I got a tent with no door on it, rain coming in.” 

Shutdown Led To The Camps  

The governor's stay-home order closed many daytime hangouts like libraries, coffee shops and other businesses where people without stable housing could sit, use Wi-Fi and charge their phones. So people built these tent villages to be close to the nearby soup kitchen and day center at Roof Above, formerly the Charlotte Urban Ministry Center. 

Liz Classen-Kelly, CEO of Roof Above.
Credit David Boraks / WFAE
Liz Clasen-Kelly, CEO of Roof Above.

“It is, as far as we know, the largest encampment in our community's history,” said Liz Clasen-Kelly, Roof Above's chief executive.   

Clasen-Kelly says the camp has become a sort of "home base" for homeless people amid the uncertainties of the pandemic.  

After several months, it has developed its own ecosystem and economy. In one tent, a couple of women were selling shoes lined up on the sidewalk and clothes on a rack. Other homeless residents have pitched extra tents as a moneymaker – becoming landlords to their fellow homeless neighbors.  

“The reason why you see all these tents is nobody's in the tents,” said Rocarlos Davis, one of the residents. “If you want a tent here you have to pay money to people who have these tents. It's just a way to make money.”

Nearby, someone had hand-lettered the slogan "Liberty or death" on the side of a gray tent. An elevated police box with darkened windows overlooks the lot watching out for fights that residents say happen regularly. 

If someone new walks into the encampment, almost everyone asks for money in one way or another. Several people who live there mentioned that a lot of volunteers have been dropping off food at the camp. But they leave quickly and aren't really solving the problem, said one man who didn't want to give his name. 

“A dog gets treated better than us … It's effed up. I'm telling you now, if this don't get better, it's gonna get a lot worse,” he said.  

Crime In The Camp

Crime has been an issue around the Roof Above site. Police recorded 26 incidents since mid-March -- including robberies, assaults, drug arrests and one suicide. 

A police box sits next to the encampment off 12th Street, just east of uptown and I-277.
Credit David Boraks / WFAE
A police box sits next to the encampment off 12th Street, just east of uptown and I-277.

There were rumors on social media last week that police were about to shut down the 12th Street encampment and remove residents trespassing there. Charlotte-Mecklenburg police say the property owners had asked police to remove tents by Aug. 1. But the owners have since backed off the request, says CMPD.

Clasen-Kelly of Roof Above said removals are not a good idea in the midst of COVID-19. 

“The CDC is recommending not removing encampments," she said. "So they recognize the public health risk if people continue to move from site to site. And so our community has honored that.” 

More People In More Camps

That's fueling an apparent growth in the number of camps in Charlotte. So is the fact that COVID-19 has forced the city's shelter operators to reduce their capacity, to allow social distancing, said Heath Burchett, who runs the nonprofit Watchmen of the Streets, which provides food, tents and other supplies to people living outdoors. 

“You also see people out on the streets now, which would be in the shelter that aren't in shelters right now," Burchett said. "So it looks like there's way more people that are experiencing homelessness. There may or may not be, but certainly people are outside now, in tents, versus in facilities due to COVID-19."

Burchett said he has been visiting about 300 tents in more than a dozen different camps near uptown recently. Some are not getting the same attention and assistance as the large camp on 12th Street, he said.

Mecklenburg County counted 3,111 people experiencing homelessness as of June 30. That's about a thousand more than a year ago, but 600 less than the highest total counted during the winter. Of those among the current count, 508 are what's called "chronically homeless people," those who have been living on the street for a long time. That's about 60 more than a year ago.

Meanwhile, more people are becoming homeless than the number of homeless people who are finding housing right now, said Stacy Lowry, director of Mecklenburg County Community Support Services.   

Stacy Lowry, director of Mecklenburg County Community Support Services.
Credit Mecklenburg County
Stacy Lowry, director of Mecklenburg County Community Support Services.

A Community Effort

City and county officials and nonprofit agencies have joined forces to house people and prevent further spread of the virus.  

Since March, the county has rented 123 hotel rooms to quarantine about 300 former shelter residents who have COVID-19. Another 500 people have been moved from shelters to hotel rooms leased by the county and operated by social service agencies.

Altogether, said Lowry, the county will spend $5.1 million on the program through December. 

“Our community has really done a great job of responding very quickly to the pandemic and how it might impact the individuals who are homeless,” Lowry said. “I think we've been seen as a leader for (setting) up the social distancing hotels as quickly as possible.” 

Lowry said the county and its partners also are trying to prevent people who are at risk from falling into homelessness. About 1,500 people living week-to-week in hotels have received help paying their rent, thanks to federal, local and private funds, she said. 

A Long-Term Problem, More Visible

There's still the longer-term question of what happens next to those living on the street and others facing homelessness.

The city of Charlotte says it's contributing $2 million to Roof Above to develop more "supportive housing" units for homeless residents. The city has allocated another $1.3 million to help pay deposits and other upfront costs for people moving out of hotels into permanent housing. And it's giving $1.4 million to Roof Above and the Salvation Army to help move people out of shelters. 

Heath Burchett of Watchmen of the Streets said cities tend to want to keep homeless people hidden. He said he thinks the current visibility of Charlotte’s encampments may help in the long run. 

“It's a good thing for people to see that, or for politicians to see that, so that we can get some government funding or some better aid, so it's not always the nonprofits,” he said.

Larken Egleston
Credit City of Charlotte
Larken Egleston

City Council member Larken Egleston, who represents the area just east of uptown where many camps are, agreed.  

“We've got an affordable housing crisis in this community,” Egleston said. “It might not have been as visible as it is now with this encampment and the size of it, but I think if there is a silver lining to how visible and shocking to the conscience that encampment is --  it's that the community now can't ignore the problem that's really always been there.”

Give Me 90 Days, She Says

At 12th and College streets, Rosalind Webb said she and other homeless neighbors need financial support -- not deliveries of sandwiches and bottled water -- to solve homelessness. 

“If you got funds somewhere to help us get in a hotel or something of that nature, do that,” she said. 

Webb said she needs 90 days of support to get her life in order, and reset her mind from living on the street to having a home. 

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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.