Finding Home: Preparing For A Winter Without Housing, Amid The Pandemic
Mecklenburg County and social service agencies are trying to make sure they're ready to house the region's growing number of homeless residents when cold weather arrives this winter. They face extra challenges because of the COVID-19 pandemic, with some programs canceled and shelters operating at reduced capacity.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began altering life seven months ago, dozens of people have been living in tents on both sides of 12th Street, just east of uptown Charlotte. As winter nears, some are thinking about what to do if it gets really cold.
"We'll probably be going to the shelter, most likely," said a man who identified himself as Gary and has a tent nearby.
But across the vacant lot of 12th Street, Anthony Cunningham said he won't go to a shelter. "Not at all, man," he said.
He didn't say exactly why, but said he's hoping to find permanent housing before it gets cold.
Across 12th Street next to I-277, Angelique Diaz-Landry has a tent — but no winter plan yet.
"I'm just going day by day," she said. "I really don't know."
For the past couple of years, Angelique lived in an apartment, with support from one of the city's nonprofit agencies. But she has also lived outdoors in cold weather before.
"The biggest thing is to make sure you stay dry. Like, that's the worst part," she said. "But besides that, sleeping bags that are designed for under 32 degrees are a must. And basically boots, hats, and staying dry."
Gary, Anthony and Angelique are among the more than 3,000 people currently homeless in Mecklenburg County — up from just over 2,000 a year ago. At any given time, a few hundred may be sleeping outdoors in camps, under bridges or in abandoned buildings.
While it's difficult to know exactly how many beds will be available at shelters this winter, there's a good chance there will be more because of changes shelters have made in response to the pandemic.
Preparing For Winter Amid COVID-19
Karen Pelletier of Mecklenburg County Community Support Services said she and other county officials began regular meetings this month with Charlotte Mecklenburg Emergency Management and local shelter providers to plan for winter.
"We are talking about what their census and capacity will be this winter, because it will look a little bit different, being that we are getting away from the congregate settings," Pelletier said.
Congregate housing in this instance means homeless shelters where a large number of people are in close quarters. Because of the pandemic, most shelters have cut the number of beds in half to allow for physical distancing. That means they have to add beds elsewhere to keep up with need.
Since the outbreak began, Mecklenburg County and homeless service agencies have leased hotels, motels and even a vacant dormitory for homeless residents, including those who need to be isolated because of COVID-19 or exposure to the coronavirus. Pelletier said that will be an important part of winter plans.
"As of right now I believe that shelters have done a really good job really leveraging their resources, and really making sure that they're going to be able to serve even more people this year than in previous years," Pelletier said.
Shelters Make Changes
Roof Above, one of Charlotte's main homeless services agencies, announced several program changes last week that will eliminate some beds, but add others.
Because of the pandemic, Roof Above has canceled its Room in the Inn program this winter. It houses an average of 130 homeless residents a night during the winter months at churches, schools and other community sites.
Roof Above CEO Liz Clasen-Kelly says while it's important, it's not "COVID-safe."
"It involves a large group of people gathering to check in, going out in packed vans, (and) small spaces in the community," Clasen-Kelly said. "Thousands of volunteers run it. The volunteer group, there tends to be an older portion. So there's just a lot of risk factors in the process."
To help make up the difference, Roof Above will reopen the 130-bed Giles Center on Statesville Avenue on Dec. 1. It has been closed since July, when the agency began housing homeless residents in a motel.
When the Giles Center reopens, it will have more space between beds and other COVID-19 safety measures.
"We're adding sleeping barriers, walls that can be washed every day," Clasen-Kelly said. "And that's just one more barrier between you and another human being, but that will be in addition to beds being socially distanced."
Meanwhile, Roof Above also will add 28 beds at its Tryon Street shelter, and continue housing men in a leased former college dormitory through next June. Clasen-Kelly said last winter they housed an average of 533 men per night. This year, they'll have space for 621 men per night.
Salvation Army Partnership
They're also adding about 50 rooms for women and families through a new partnership with the Salvation Army Center of Hope on Spratt Street, off Statesville Avenue, another of the city's major shelters. They're hope to announce a location soon.
Salvation Army social services director Deronda Metz says it will be non-group housing, such as a hotel or motel.
"Typically with the Room in the Inn program, families and women are their priority," Metz said. "So if all goes as planned, we'll have a solution for those families."
Just like Roof Above, the Salvation Army has had to be creative in finding new beds amid the coronavirus pandemic. The Center of Hope Shelter reduced its capacity by 50%. But the Salvation Army is continuing to serve about 470 people a night, mainly by adding hotel or motel rooms.
County officials and private groups are also planning for snowstorms and plunging temperatures. Mecklenburg County's Pelletier says that in dangerously cold weather, the county will again be ready to open recreation centers or other public facilities for daytime or overnight stays — with safety protocols in place.
"We want to make sure that we are practicing social distancing, that we're meeting public health and CDC guidelines," Pelletier said. "So we are actively confirming which locations would meet the demand the best."
Another change this winter will be the lack of sit-down hot meals at Roof Above's soup kitchen off North College Street, something that's on hold because of the pandemic. They'll continue serving takeout-only meals. But they will add outdoor warming equipment for people as they wait.
"It's still outside, right? So it's not perfect," Clasen-Kelly said. "But heated areas, so folks can still have some protection from the elements while they're outside. And we can continue to distance crowds inside."
Federal And Local Aid
All these temporary solutions are being paid for with federal aid, funneled through the state or local governments. Other support comes from private donations to the programs themselves, and from the private COVID-19 Response Fund, run by the Foundation for the Carolinas and United Way of Central Carolinas.
The Salvation Army's Metz said the pandemic has forced the city, county and nonprofit agencies to work even more closely together, and she hopes that's a permanent change.
"We are all sort of benefiting from working together," she said. "So I'm hopeful that we'll be able to sustain it. I mean, why go back?"
Her counterpart, Clasen-Kelly at Roof Above, agrees, saying she hopes they'll "eke every ounce of learning out of this experience."
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