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Property Owners Sue To Force Shutdown of Homeless Encampment

120320 Mitchell Kimberly Darnell.JPG
David Boraks
/
WFAE
A lawsuit seeks to remove people living in a tent city off 12th Street near uptown Charlotte.

A legal battle is escalating over Charlotte's most visible homeless encampment, along 12th Street just east of uptown. The owners of a vacant lot across the street are seeking a court order to remove homeless residents, even as the coronavirus pandemic worsens.

People started moving to the site in late March, just as the coronavirus began spreading. Businesses and government buildings were closing, and shelters were cutting back on beds and other services. They wanted to get closer to food and other services provided nearby at Roof Above, formerly the Urban Ministry Center, or "the Urb."

A homeless man named "Dee" said he put up a tent in April. “There was no people here, it was really quiet and peaceful. It was close to the Urb, close to resources," he said.

The property owner, city and county have kept an eye on the camp. Social service agencies have provided tents and food. Charlotte-Mecklenburg police have helped clear other encampments nearby, but they say they haven't had any requests from property owners to remove this one. Meanwhile, local officials note that the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends against shutting down homeless camps amid the pandemic.

But the owners of another vacant lot across the street from the camp don't like it. They're suing the lot owners, the city and the county in Mekclenburg County court, saying the camp is a public nuisance.

“They can't sell it, they can't use it, because they're surrounded by a homeless encampment that is a humanitarian disaster,” said Ed Hinson, a lawyer for the owners.

120320 12th St camp.JPG
David Boraks
Homeless residents have pitched tents at a vacant lot off 12th Street since early in the coronavirus pandemic.

Hinson represents Samar and Amahd Ismaiel of Charlotte, plus other family members who own the lot. There are no homeless people there. But they say the situation around them has caused deals to fall through with three potential developers over the past couple of years.

The Ishmaiels recently added both the city and county as defendants in the suit, Hinson said.

“We would like the city and the county to address the problem to find a more humane place for the homeless to be," Hinson said. "But if the city and the county don't have the will to do that, then we ask them to buy the property for a fair price."

The owners had a contract to sell the property for $5.1 million in November 2019, before it fell through. That was before the coronavirus began to spread in the United States.

Owners of the lot where people are camping have not responded to the lawsuit yet. Neither have the city and county. Asked for comment, city and county officials both said they and social services agencies are working on the broader problem of homeless — adding hotel rooms and shelter beds, and building more transitional housing for homeless residents.

City Council member Larken Egleston has been involved in discussions about the camp and the Ishmaiels' concerns. He said even with more places for people to live, camps like this one aren't going away.

“We've got to find solutions for some of the folks who are experiencing mental health crises, or experiencing substance abuse issues, who've decided for whatever reasons — logical or not — that they want to be outside, they don't want to be in a shelter, they don't want to be in a motel, they want to be in a tent,” he said.

The lawsuit asks the court to order the encampment to be shut down. It also seeks monetary damages and legal fees.

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