Unmasking the Real Charlotte – Mecklenburg

Wallace Stegner once said “Home is a notion that only nations of the homeless fully appreciate and only the uprooted comprehend.” Located in Charlotte-Mecklenburg county alongside North College Street is a large homeless encampment called Tent City. The residents of this tent city include hundreds of homeless men, women, and children living in various tents and makeshift shelters located near the downtown area. The tent city has become a haven for the homeless population due to the limited resources available to the homeless community here in Charlotte-Mecklenburg. As of March 31, 2020, Mecklenburg County reports there were about 3,683 homeless individuals across the county, revealing an increase in the unsheltered homeless population even though the overall population of homeless decreased. 

Until February 2021, residents of Tent City were living in squalor and defending themselves from vermin that plagued the encampment. Even with the help of community pioneers and volunteers, the people of Tent City still had basic needs that were not being met. As stories of Tent City residents living in filth and getting sick spread, local officials created a temporary housing solution to clean the encampment, sending residents back onto the streets. Charlotte-Mecklenburg County offered residents a free 90-day stay in a hotel, an offer taken by at least 210 people. Residents were only allowed to take two bags with them, meaning many lost some of their belongings.This fleeting solution is valiant in theory but is only another link in the chain that contributes to the cycle of poverty and neglect in this city. 

The topic of homelessness is not a recent discussion, it is in fact an issue that has riddled the streets of our city drastically for nearly a decade. There is a common misconception that it is solely the responsibility of public officials to aid in the fight against homeless, but that is untrue given that there are numerous ways to address the challenges the unhoused face. With the help of organizations such as Block Love CLT, Revamp CLT, and Project downtown, the unhoused community has been provided food, medical supplies, employment opportunities, and many more hopeful solutions to their poverty— but it is still not enough. 

One key way to combat the homelessness epidemic is to utilize the underutilized spaces in Charlotte. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education is currently seeking interested tenants to lease approximately 11 vacated school sites. These empty school buildings could be a short and long term solution for our unhoused residents here in Charlotte and offer great benefits to the larger community:

  • Empty school buildings could be underwritten by sponsors in the private sector or public sector, alleviating the need for any cost to the taxpayers; 
  • Buildings have accessible recreation facilities inside and outside;
  • Buildings have grounds and classroom settings that can be used for job skill training and budgeting to prepare the homeless to become job-ready for entities that sign on to hire them after such completion or at a minimum the first right of refusal for the opportunity;
  • Buildings have offices and health rooms for mental health and services and treatment;
  • Buildings have access to public transportation, including a bus line.

The ability to utilize an otherwise unused structure to provide critical services and programs for unhoused families  should be a high priority.

Major Obstacles/Implementation Challenges:

The major obstacles and implementation challenges to the proposed solution are:

  • Who will pay? Do we increase taxes? Can this be covered through government grants and bonds? What are the overall operational costs? 
  • Who will lead this endeavor? Should leadership be in the private, public, faith-based or non-profit sectors? Who is responsible for property management? 
  • How do we get buy-in from local city leaders and officials? 
  • How do we keep residents safe? Do we hire private security? Do we implement access codes and resident tracking?
  • Will local hospital systems partner to provide mental health and medical services?
  • Administration and staffing would be a top priority.

To be sure, there are several outstanding questions that need to be addressed to make this solution work. There should be an immediate and concerted effort to discuss when and how to move this into fruition to address the Tent City Community’s challenges at a time when homelessness continues to surge.

Sources:

Wallace Stegner (2000). “Angle of Repose”, p.149, Penguin

Charlotte Homeless Population Living in Tents as Shelters Fill Up.” Charlotte Homeless Population Living in Tents

Additional Operational Information for Some Sites.” Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools