Antonio Howard has been struggling with homelessness for five years, three of those in Charlotte. He has to do whatever he can each day to find a safe space to sleep at night. When I ask where he usually lays his head, he extends his arms and spins in a circle, saying “Wherever I can.”
I ask about his plan for that night, which is unseasonably warm for January, but he still has no intention of spending it outside. He points toward an AT&T work van at the intersection of Trade and Tryon streets. “If that van stays there all night, I might be in there sleeping, you know what I mean?” he says.
Howard is not the only example of desperate people being forced to take desperate measures on the streets of Charlotte. One recent CMPD incident report told of a family living in a broken down car on Nations Crossing Road in south Charlotte, with a 1-year-old child who was found to be neglected due to his poor health and homeless status.
Another couple was recently charged with breaking and entering after they went behind the front desk at Crowne Plaza Charlotte Executive Park. The couple stole a room key without paying, then slept in the room because they were homeless and needed to stay warm.
In Mecklenburg County, a wind chill of 10 degrees sustained for more than 24 hours was long the threshold at which the county would open warming centers at pre-established centers in the area. Frostnip, frostbite and hypothermia are all real dangers of being exposed to weather that feels like 10 degrees for a prolonged period of time.
Recently, officials with the Charlotte Mecklenburg Emergency Management Office have moved away from the set temperature threshold. Hannah Sanborn with CMEMO said in an email that a county-wide Shelter Task Force made up of partners from the city of Charlotte, Mecklenburg County, the American Red Cross and local homeless service providers such as Urban Ministry Center and the Salvation Army Center of Hope determined that specific criteria in regards to triggering a shelter activation restricts them from operating at times when the variables fall outside of the criteria. She adds that their focus, first and foremost, is safety.
Factors that initiate conversations among the task force include partner impacts or shelter capacities, weather forecasts and 911 call volume. There was no specification on what type of weather constitutes concern.
In November 2019, when temperatures dropped below freezing for a night, Urban Ministry Center, who operates The Men’s Shelter of Charlotte and Salvation Army Center of Hope, expanded their capacity. Salvation Army said they would not turn anyone away and would remain open for 24 hours. Howard, however, had no such luck, stating that he was turned away from The Men’s Shelter of Charlotte during that period of time due to the shelter being at capacity.
“The worst part about it, if you’re not sleeping there, you ain’t eating,” Howard adds. “I’ve just gotten to that point man. A lot of people have,” he continues regarding his intentions to stop going to the local shelters. “I have to ask the businesses for food, because I am actually hungry.”
According to the 2019 Point in Time Count report, a census of sorts that surveys the local homeless population, there are more than 2,100 residents in Mecklenburg County struggling with homelessness, and everyday dozens are being turned away from shelters. The waiting lists are long and the beds are usually full.
The new Point in Time Count for 2020 will be held on Wednesday, January 29. Volunteers will also document permanent and temporary housing capacity across the housing continuum.
Sanborn says the Shelter Task Force operates two main types of shelters. One is a shelter overflow operation in response to capacity at existing homeless shelters being reached, and the other is a disaster response shelter operation during hurricanes, flooding or widespread power outages. She says The Men’s Shelter and the Salvation Army can provide overflow accommodations to a certain point before the Shelter Task Force assists in operating an overflow shelter.
According to Sanborn, if the task force determines that the sheltering need is likely going to exceed the capacity at the Men’s Shelter, the Salvation Army Center of Hope, and Room in the Inn, then an overflow shelter location is identified and operations are stood up. The overflow shelters are not located at permanent locations, but chosen on a case-by-case basis from an inventory of potential sites depending on the situations, Sanborn said.
Once the decision is made to open a shelter, the location is published in a press release and on social media, and information is distributed by the Urban Ministry street outreach team and staff at the shelters.
If the Emergency Management Office is starting to take steps in the direction of humaneness, why are people still opposed to using the supplied shelter system as a means for safety? Mecklenburg County Commissioner at-large Pat Cotham says it has to do with more than just the shelters being open.
“The people who are the most vulnerable don’t know what’s happening — they don’t even know what day it is sometimes,” Cotham says. “The people who need shelter don’t know about it, and they don’t have any way to find out and we don’t have anybody out there telling them.”
Cotham says the county has told her that homeless residents can go online to find out what beds are available at local shelters and when the warming centers are open, what the hours of operation are and what sleeping situations are available.
“They don’t have anything to go online with. They don’t have wi-fi, they don’t have a laptop in their backpack,” Cotham adds.
CMEMO states that residents can also call 311 for shelter information.
“They hesitate to leave their little spot at the bus stop — at a covered bus stop — or an area near a church or something,” Cotham continues.
A lot of our homeless population are elderly or disabled and don’t have the physical means to walk for long distances, she adds, and if they can, they’re still not guaranteed a bed when they arrive at the shelter.
Cotham says that North Tryon Street, where many homeless people stay, is well-lit and often patrolled by police cars. There are more people around, which can bring a higher sense of safety, although that can bring its own risks. On Jan. 10, a man was stabbed in the chest at a homeless encampment that has sprung up on North Tryon not far from the center of the city.
While there have been some improvements in resource availability for the homeless community, Cotham, who has worked with the people living on our streets for years, says the county continues to lack in communication efforts and reliable transportation to shelters, saying clearly, “I think we need a bus.”
Cotham is known to spend nights during the cold season walking the streets and handing out supplies to homeless residents.
“When I’m giving out blankets and stuff they say, ‘I could really use it but I can’t carry this stuff all the time.’ The people who stay at the shelter, I repeatedly hear that when they leave, they have to take their things with them. A lot of times, like if they are on a job interview, they have to put their things in a bush and hope that after the interview it would still be there,” she says.
She suggests that repurposing the hundreds of school lockers that have become obsolete in local schools could be a helpful policy.
She’s made friends with many people facing homelessness, and when I ask Cotham what people on the streets are saying to her, she says that, beyond warm shelter and food, many of our homeless neighbors have simply found themselves down on their luck.
Cotham has met many people who have jobs but just don’t have the credit to lock down a stable home. They feel dehumanized by fellow residents’ unwillingness to see them as peers.
“They feel invisible and people don’t look at them and they want to be seen,” she says.