As Charlotte's homeless population grows, more people are sleeping outdoors. Each has a name and a story. A seven-year-old ministry called Watchmen of the Streets visits them regularly to bring supplies - and friendship.
Every other Tuesday night, volunteers from Watchmen of the Streets pack tents, sleeping bags, and food into their cars and head out to encampments just east of uptown Charlotte. They're in the woods, below underpasses and next to railroad tracks - some with views of uptown's ritzy office and apartment towers.
“So the thing for us has always been to go where the people are at, where, where a lot of people would never go, where people are hiding because they're afraid that they're going to have to move, for whatever reason,” said Heath Burchett, who founded the group in 2013.
Burchett said it's about seeing our homeless neighbors as human beings.
“We try to develop real relationships with people, love on people, with no agenda, and then deliver supplies and things to help,” he said.
Last week, the Watchmen met Albert, who wanted some wipes to prevent the spread of the coronavirus - and a prayer.
“Yeah, those are wipes, sanitary antibacterial,” Burchett said, handing him a package.
“OK, thank you,” said Albert.
“You ready to pray?” said Burchett, and he began: “God, I just thank you so much for Albert, Lord, and just watch after him, put your angels round about him while he's out here.”
Homeless Population Growing
Watchmen of the Streets is just one of a network of shelters, soup kitchens, the Urban Ministry Center and other agencies that help Charlotte's growing homeless population. County officials say more than 3,500 people are now homeless in Charlotte and Mecklenburg County. That number grew by 1,500 in the second half of 2019. The county also has tried to get more personal in its counting and now maintains a database of homeless residents by name instead of just numbers on a spreadsheet.
Opening people's eyes to the humanity of people living on the street is the point of a new documentary about Watchmen of the Streets, "Hungry for Love." Filmmaker Trevor Brown included portraits of homeless neighbors like Ronnie Smith.
“They stereotype us all in being the same,” Smith says in a trailer for the film. “They're either drunk, they're on drugs or all they want to do is party. But because they can't afford housing, or because of their past, nobody will let them have a place to live, they're forced to be out here."
Smith is one of the film's stars. Although he has lived on the street for years, he defies stereotypes. He's a musician and had been working 50 hours a week in a restaurant kitchen at Epicentre in uptown Charlotte, commuting from his tent less than a mile away. That was until he lost his job last week when the governor ordered all restaurants to close for inside service. Smith is a longtime friend of Watchmen volunteers. They've helped him get dental work and search for permanent housing.
Homeless But Thankful
Homeless residents say they're thankful for the Watchmen. Franklin, who didn't want his last name used, works in landscaping and has been living in the woods just outside the Interstate 277 loop for about seven months - since the day he left an abusive relationship.
“I actually came across the Watchmen that same night, just when I was about to lay down on a little sidewalk,” he said. “And I got up and I looked and it's like, oh my god, like, yes, and I seen like a line of people with black and white shirts on, and it's just like OK, yes. … And they gave me a tent. And it was just like when I was about to lay down. So like I say, I do thank them from top to bottom.”
For a few of these homeless residents, that gratitude has translated into a desire to give back. Ray Shore lives under a bridge near uptown, and he's also been a Watchmen volunteer for four years.
“They helped me out when I needed help, so I return the favor,” Shore said.
Shore wants people to know that homelessness can happen to many of us: “People get sick or lose their job, all it takes is one hiccup.”
One hiccup, and you're on the street, Shore said. He blames it in part on the lack of affordable housing in Charlotte and the thousands of dollars you need for a deposit and up-front rent on an apartment. Many people just can't swing it.
Seeking Understanding And Help
Heath Burchett said he wants people to better understand our homeless neighbors - and maybe lend a hand.
“If you heard their stories, and you heard about their lives and what they've been through, I really feel like it would just open up hearts to see people in a different light,” Burchett said.
“I'm hoping that people would really want to help, instead of just saying, 'Well, if I was homeless, I would get a job here. If I was homeless, I would do this.'”
The Watchmen of the Streets visit homeless camps in Charlotte and four other North Carolina cities regularly. Burchett said they operate on a budget of about $170,000 a year, all from donations. They are currently taking the film "Hungry for Love" to church and community groups to spread their message, and raise funds.