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Mecklenburg Health Director: 'Tent City' Is Health Risk, Residents Must Leave

David Boraks

Updated Tuesday, Feb. 18, 11:57 p.m.

The Mecklenburg County Health Department has given homeless residents and property owners 72 hours to shut down tent encampments near uptown Charlotte, citing health reasons.

Tuesday afternoon's order affects encampments on six parcels of privately owned property known as "Tent City" along and near 12th Street, as well as on public property next to Interstate 277. The county says the site is infested with rodents and poses an "immediate health risk."

“This is not a situation that anybody should be living in. It’s not safe,” Mecklenburg County Public Health Director Gibbie Harris told county commissioners at their meeting Tuesday night.

Harris showed photographs of rat droppings and burrow holes near the tents and explained that rats can carry diseases like hantavirus, typhus and trichinosis. She said the only way the county can combat the rodent problem is if all of the residents leave.

“The situation isn’t going to take care of itself because there is a food source there,” Harris said. “People have food in their tents. People are dropping off food there all the time, so there’s a food source that these rats can easily get to.”

The order issued Tuesday is technically known as an abatement of imminent hazard order and allows action to protect the public's health. When Harris issued a similar order in October 2020 to prevent United House of Prayer for All People sites in the county from holding services after a coronavirus outbreak, she said it was just the second such order she had issued in her 30-year career.

An estimated 140 people live at the encampment. It has been the city's most visible sign of its housing crisis and homeless problem since it began to form last year at the start of the coronavirus pandemic. According to Tuesday’s order, the county health department received “numerous complaints” about the sanitation and living conditions there. It also received reports of people building illegal fires.

The conglomeration of tents has been allowed to remain largely because of guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that says: "Clearing encampments can cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers. This increases the potential for infectious disease spread."

David Boraks

‘Not Everybody’s Going To Want To Go’

County officials said on Tuesday evening that they're working with social service agencies to support residents who will have to move. That includes offering hotel rooms and expanding shelter capacity.

"These accommodations will include what is offered to all shelter residents such as access to mental health and substance use services, housing navigation and case management," the county said in a press release.

Local officials and homeless services providers have been discussing what to do about the camp. At a town hall on homelessness in January, county officials noted that they have spent $34 million over the past year to help homeless residents amid the pandemic. That has included money for rental assistance and preventing evictions.

The county spent $6.8 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds to put homeless residents up in hotels. This winter, the county has 273 more beds for homeless residents than it had last year.

Some in the encampment have previously expressed reluctance about moving into shelters, either because of mental health or substance abuse problems or a desire for independence. On Tuesday night, multiple county commissioners cited that as a concern.

“Not everybody’s going to want to go into a hotel or they would have gone into a hotel when offered,” Commissioner Laura Meier said. She asked about dedicating certain alternate sites, like parking garages, for homeless residents.

“This problem is really about the public health issue. It’s not about eliminating tents,” said Assistant County Manager Anthony Trotman. “After we deal with this particular site, you may still see tents in our community.”

But County Manager Dena Diorio made clear that officials will try to prevent new encampments from emerging because she said similar public health concerns could arise.

‘We Don’t Have An Endgame’

According to the order, within 24 hours of the encampment being cleared, property owners must remove all garbage and refuse and submit a "rodent eradication plan" to the county. The health department then wants to inspect the property after pest removal has been through all sites. There is no mention of when or if those currently living on the property will be allowed back.

“If folks are moving into the hotels, how long do they have to be there?” Commissioner Susan Rodriguez-McDowell asked at Tuesday’s meeting. “Can you paint a picture of how this is expected to go?”

The funding to relocate residents will come from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Diorio said, but she added that it’s unclear how long that money will last.

“We’re going to have to see where we land at the end,” Diorio told commissioners. “We don’t have an endgame today. We just know we have a health hazard that we have to address and try to make sure people are safe.”

The health department's order comes as the city, county and property owners face a lawsuit from other landowners on 12th Street who say the camps are a public nuisance and have devalued their property.

Lawyer Ed Hinson represents the Ismaiel family, who filed the lawsuit.

"This is an encouraging sign to my clients that the county apparently recognizes this is a dangerous and unsafe situation and they appear to be doing something about it. That's great," he said.

County officials say they'll begin enforcing the shutdown order at 5 p.m. Friday.

The full order can be read below:

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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.
Claire Donnelly is WFAE's health reporter. She previously worked at NPR member station KGOU in Oklahoma and also interned at WBEZ in Chicago and WAMU in Washington, D.C. She holds a master's degree in journalism from Northwestern University and attended college at the University of Virginia, where she majored in Comparative Literature and Spanish. Claire is originally from Richmond, Virginia. Reach her at cdonnelly@wfae.org or on Twitter @donnellyclairee.