One Week After Encampment Cleared, Advocate Says Homelessness 'Is Something Our City Has To Address'
It’s been a week since the tents and tarps that were home to more than 200 people were removed from an encampment near uptown Charlotte and Interstate 277. County officials said a rat infestation made the site, known as "Tent City" a health hazard and gave people living there 72 hours to leave.
County and nonprofit staff helped relocate many of the people living there to hotel rooms, where they can stay for 90 days. Deronda Metz, director of social services for the Salvation Army in Charlotte, says here organization has been working with people in the encampment since early December to get them housing, and the Salvation Army is continuing to work with them at the hotel.
WFAE's "All Things Considered" host Gwendolyn Glenn spoke with Metz a week after the encampment site was cleared.
Deronda Metz: On Friday, we were just there as a partner. We had our case management staff that said, yes, we'll step up. And so we were receiving some of the overflow that would be best in more of a women's shelter or family shelter — something other than the hotel. Because our goal is housing. And so what we've done is that we are providing case management in that encampment hotel five days a week.
Gwendolyn Glenn: How many are still there right now?
Metz: So, Thursday, the number was about 214 people still in the hotel.
Glenn: And how are they doing?
Metz: People are so grateful to be on the inside. And not just on the inside — off the streets and be getting support. Support people asking them, you know, what they need, and connecting them withservices that help their lives to get better. And to be housed and not be back on the street.
And I love all the advocates that thought, "It is so wrong to make people leave out of these tents off the street." And I struggle with it, as well. I am a social worker. I went to my spiritual adviser about it. Because to me, clearly it was people suffering. Like I would never advocate for the type of suffrage that I witnessed in the encampment and so many of us witnessed.
Glenn: Can you tell me about anyone specific that you met at the hotel or talked to who came from that encampment?
Metz: Yeah, I can tell you about a young lady that we are working with that's actually working and is so grateful. And has some barriers to getting housing, which is one reason they were out there.
Glenn: And as you said, this person was working. I guess sometimes people don't think that people who are living in these kinds of conditions are working or maybe have families.
Metz: We found out that there are several people that were working, maybe not making enough money to afford Charlotte's rent or have barriers to housing, whether it's evictions. Some people have, you know, a criminal record. Not all.
Glenn: And earlier, council member Malcolm Graham wrote an editorial in which he gave what he thought would be good suggestions in how to work with people who were living in that encampment. And one of the things that he suggested was 90 to 100 days in terms of closing (the encampment). They were given 72 hours.
Do you think that was done right? And do you think it was that dire of a situation to move them out that quickly?
Metz: Yeah. And I could just say it probably was done very strategically because there was a plan. It wasn't, "Let's just put the people out because we know that rodents, we know the conditions in that camp were bad, period." And so I think it was done well because there were resources to help people.
So it wasn't just about pushing people out of the encampment with no place to go. And there was a lot of thought that people are not going to want to come in. People want to be in an encampment. Totally, totally opposite. I think it was done in a humane way because resources were offered and options will offered.
Glenn: Well, let me ask you this: One thing that several people have suggested is that they receive the vaccine for the coronavirus. Was that something that was done? And do you think it should have been done?
Metz: For some reason in North Carolina, they are not giving high priority to people that are homeless. And myself, other homeless advocates, providers, we are doing some advocacy around the significance in getting the vaccine for people that are homeless. But right now, our county has to follow the state plan.
Glenn: And looking long term, do you think that city officials, county officials should set up designated places where these kinds of encampments can be done in a safe way, where you don't have the rodent problem and other issues that you had here in this uptown area?
Metz: This past week, I'd probably say, "Hmmm, let me give us some thought." I think the answer is permanent housing and housing for all. And allowing people the opportunity to be able to afford housing — permanent housing. So it's not to, after this effort is over, this shelter effort, for people to go back somewhere else. I'm not really a proponent for encampments. I am a huge advocate on people having a place to live.
Glenn: And what's the next step? You know, as you say, permanent housing is something you would like to see. But we all know that that's not going to be the case, that not everybody is going to find permanent housing right now. What are some of the additional steps after these 90 days run out for these residents?
Metz: I think we're going to have to be creative on how we do housing, period. Looking at more of roommate situations, looking at boarding houses. I mean, they do boarding room houses in other places across this country. So I think at the end of the day, since the late '90s in this city, we have told people we didn't have a response to their homeless issue. So I think what it has done, it has really made us all aware that this is something that our city has to address, our county has to address, so we can make Charlotte a community where everybody can live.
Deronda Metz is the director of social services for the Salvation Army in Charlotte.