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Each Monday, Tommy Tomlinson delivers thoughtful commentary on an important topic in the news. Through these perspectives, he seeks to find common ground that leads to deeper understanding of complex issues and that helps people relate to what others are feeling, even if they don’t agree.

On My Mind: Takeaways From Tent City

Some of what was left behind at Tent City shortly before the 5 p.m. Friday deadline to clear the site.
Nick de la Canal
Some of what was left behind at Tent City shortly before the 5 p.m. Friday deadline to clear the site.

Charlotte’s Tent City might be leaving the streets, but it needs to set up camp in our minds for a lot longer. Because it has become a symbol for two things: one, Charlotte’s homeless problem, and two, our lack of will in trying to solve it.

Tent City has been there for nearly a year now, along 12th Street on the northern edge of uptown. Charlotte always has a few thousand homeless residents at any given moment, but they tend to be scattered. You couldn’t miss Tent City.

It bloomed because of COVID-19, which closed a lot of places homeless people might spend the day, and caused job losses that put more people on the street. The Centers for Disease Control and Preventionalso advised that breaking up encampments might make it more likely for the virus to spread.

But Mecklenburg County decided last week that Tent City was a health hazard because of a rat infestation. That led to some squabbling between the county and city, because the county is in charge of public health and the city is in charge of affordable housing, and so they had a little spat over who’s responsible for what — and you would need an electron microscope to be able to see how little I care.

We have always treated the homeless this way — as somebody else’s problem — and that needs to stop right now because homeless people are not somebody else. They’re us.

It’s interesting that we’re dismantling Tent City for public health, because we should’ve been treating homelessness as a public health problem all along. Many homeless people are on the street because of addiction or mental illness. Helping get the addicted off drugs and the mentally ill back on their meds would go a long way by itself.

But we also have to think of homelessness as a sign of our moral health. So many people lose their homes because they lost a job, got sick, fled an abuser, or caught some other bad break. Our economic system rewards those at the top with untold riches. But it leaves so many at the bottom with nothing more than a cold, hard square of dirt in the middle of winter.

The temporary solution for Tent City is moving the residents into hotel rooms. But study after study has shown that the best long-term solution is to just give homeless people an apartment. I know that idea grates on people who want every homeless person to earn their keep. But giving someone a place to live is cheaper in the long run than paying for all those police calls and emergency room visits. Moore Place, which the Urban Ministry Center built in 2012, has housed 300 of Charlotte’s homeless over the years. There need to be a lot more places like Moore Place.

But we can’t count on nonprofits and rich folks to tackle this. It needs to be a larger effort, public and private, with the goal of getting as many homeless people as possible off our streets. Some will need long-term treatment. Others just need a little boost.

Virtually every religion, or every secular moral philosophy, centers itself on how we treat those among us with the least. The lingering lesson of Tent City should be that it’s not mostly about the folks in the tents. It’s about the rest of us.

Tommy Tomlinson’s On My Mind column runs Mondays on WFAE and WFAE.org. It represents his opinion, not the opinion of WFAE. You can respond to this column in the comments section below. You can also email Tommy at ttomlinson@wfae.org.

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Tommy Tomlinson has hosted the podcast SouthBound for WFAE since 2017. He also does a commentary, On My Mind, which airs every Monday.