© 2021 WFAE
90.7 Charlotte 93.7 Southern Pines 90.3 Hickory 106.1 Laurinburg
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
Local News

As They Prepare To Move, Tent City Residents Worry About Where To Live And COVID-19

021721 Tent City 1.JPG
David Boraks
/
WFAE
Mecklenburg County has ordered the closure of a homeless "Tent City" along 12th Street just outside uptown Charlotte for health reasons.

Charlotte's "Tent City" of homeless residents near uptown is being shut down after Mecklenburg County declared it a health risk. Homeless residents in the area were just learning about the order Wednesday, and many were concerned about where they'll go — and about COVID-19.

The encampment along 12th Street just east of Interstate 277 is a different place than when it first popped up last April, early in the coronavirus pandemic. It's now covered with trash, mud puddles and burned-out tents.

021721 Tent City 2 - Urb tents.JPG
David Boraks
People have set up tents outside the Roof Above (Urban Ministry Center) day center on the College-Tryon Connector. As part of the county's health order, they also must move.

And county health officials say a growing rat infestation is a public health risk. So, they've ordered residents to clear out by Friday at 5 p.m. That has Tent City resident Gary Pickett wondering where he'll wind up. He's already been talking to a social service agency, but so far hasn't found housing.

"Yeah, I had talked to them," Pickett said. "They said they were supposed to get me a hotel room ... so we're waitin' to see what they can do."

Pickett has lived in the encampment for a couple of months after separating from his children and their mother. His tent is right on 12th Street, not far from the Blue Line light rail tracks. He's one of an estimated 150 people living in the area right now.

Nearby, another man named Isaiah said he doesn't like the sound of the order.

"Sometimes it's just hard to maneuver because of COVID," he said. "I don't feel like it's fair. … Instead of kicking people out, why not help them get somewhere to stay?"

021721 Tent City College-Tryon walking.JPG
David Boraks
Homeless residents walk down the street near the Roof Above day center.

Mecklenburg County officials agree. They said Wednesday that local shelters have 50 beds available, and they're also planning to add another shelter hotel, which would house people for up to 90 days. And the county will offer other support, such as help with mental health and substance abuse.

Isaiah is actually now living in a shelter, but wants to move to a hotel because of COVID-19. He thinks many Tent City residents might be reluctant to use the shelter in the midst of a pandemic.

"I think that's the most dangerous place you can go. For the simple fact, you got hundreds of people going inside the shelter trying to get a bed, and you're all bunched up together. You don't know who's sick in there," Isaiah said. "That's why I'd rather have a hotel where I know I can be sanitized and quarantined alone, by myself."

He said he hasn't been able to see his kids while living in the shelter and potentially exposed to the virus.

To Richard, another Tent City resident, COVID-19 is the main concern with shutting down the camp.

021721 Tent City - Jeremy Engram.JPG
David Boraks
Jeremy Engram lives under I-277 near uptown. He thinks many people at the encampments in the area will just move elsewhere, not to shelters or hotels.

"It's as simple as this: They got to test everybody before they send everybody somewhere," he insisted. "Because if they're gonna put everybody out in 72 hours, everybody gotta be tested and all that. So they got to put a plan in place."

It now looks like there is a plan. Mecklenburg County spokeswoman Rebecca Carter said Wednesday that the county plans to offer people coronavirus tests when they leave the encampment.

Another big change in the Tent City in recent weeks is that the biggest concentration of tents is no longer on a private lot at 12th and College streets, near a mini-storage warehouse. Now, most people are camping on the embankments below I-277 — land owned by the NCDOT.

County officials said they'll have to leave, too.

Jeremy Engram is living in a tent along College Street under I-277. Engram wouldn't say if he would accept an offer to move to a shelter or hotel. But he thinks a lot of other people living in tents in the area won't.

"What are they going to do?" Engram said. "Because all these people are going to go somewhere, and they're going to take all their drugs and everything they've got with them. And they're just going to scour about the city."

It's not yet clear how the county plans to enforce the order. Charlotte-Mecklenburg police said Wednesday they won't be involved. And the Mecklenburg County Sheriff's office says the county has not asked for its help, either.

County officials say they're lining up a large number of social workers to help persuade people to move to shelters or hotels.

Want to read all of WFAE’s best news each day? Sign up here for The Frequency, WFAE’s daily email newsletter, to have our top stories delivered straight to your inbox.