At 5 p.m. on Tuesday, the Mecklenburg County Public Health (MCPH) department issued an Order of Abatement of Imminent Hazard to the owners of seven properties that make up what has become known as Tent City, a sprawling encampment where around 100 unsheltered residents have made their homes.
The order states that the property owners have 72 hours to clear out anyone living at the site due to an apparent rodent infestation that has occurred there. Property owners have been ordered to clean their respective lots so that rodent eradication can begin.
“We have taken this action out of an abundance of caution to protect the health of encampment residents,” MCPH Director Gibbie Harris stated in a release on Tuesday. “This type of order is rare, but sometimes necessary. In this instance, it will help us better work with encampment residents to find alternative accommodations, many of whom have been reluctant to seek help because of concerns with COVID-19.”
Tuesday’s release stated the county is working with partner organizations to expand shelter services to accommodate all those who will need to leave Tent City.
At a Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners meeting that took place about an hour after the order was issued, Board Chair George Dunlap emphasized that the county had motel rooms available for each person living in the encampment on Tuesday night should they accept the offer, though Deputy County Manager Anthony Trotman stated later in the meeting that no efforts had yet been made to communicate the order’s existence to those living there.
County manager Dena Diorio said Tuesday night the county would max out the federal funding it could receive from FEMA to help shelter as many people as possible for as long as possible, though she did not know specifics for how many rooms or how long that will be.
According to the abatement order, MCPH specialists made multiple visits to Tent City beginning in January in response to “numerous complaints regarding the sanitation and living conditions at the Encampment Site.”
Though the specialists had witnessed unsafe and unsanitary conditions at the site in January, according to the order, it was not until the week of Feb. 8 that “they observed evidence of rodent infestation, to include numerous rodent burrows as well as dead rodents, which had not been observed during previous visits.”
The order states specialists found rodent bait boxes they “reasonably suspect” were placed there by the property owners aware of the issues at the site and rodent poison they believed to have been placed there by those living at the site, creating more dangers to the people living there.
An unidentified source provided Queen City Nerve with a video taken in January depicting a number of rats fleeing from a burrow on a lot near the intersection of North College Street and East 12th Street.
This video of rats scattering from underneath a tarp at the encampment was just shared with me by a source. This video was taken in January ‘21. pic.twitter.com/iGl5cpXbMC
— Justin LaFrancois (@lafrancois_j) February 16, 2021
In November, the county announced that it had made shelter beds available for every person living in Tent City. Many people living at the encampment prefer not to live in shelters for a number of reasons, including past experiences of theft or assault, fear of COVID-19, or struggles with drug addiction or mental health.
In January, following an outbreak of COVID-19 at Roof Above’s men’s shelter on North Tryon Street, the organization moved all of its shelter services to motel rooms.
When Queen City Nerve spoke with Roof Above spokesperson Randall Hitt earlier this month, he acknowledged that many folks living at Tent City don’t want to live in shelters, but said he hopes the expanded use of motel rooms — where one or two people stay in each room as compared to 200 men may be living at a shelter — will convince some to accept shelter.
“As I’ve talked with some individuals who are looking for shelter, they have come up and said, ‘I hear y’all can help me get a motel room. If I can get a motel room I’ll feel more comfortable,'” Hitt recalled. He also implied that, if the motel expansion is found to be successful, it could lead to changes in how the organization operates.
“When eventually we all feel like we’re on the other side of the pandemic — there have been mass vaccinations and we’re going to, quote, get back to normal — we also might uncover new things that we have to mitigate when people come back from that, but it’s hard to say when that will be,” Hitt said.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Trotman said county officials were meeting with partner organizations to discuss how to implement the transition. He said officials would begin visiting Tent City on Wednesday to inform residents of the order.
“We cannot force anyone to go into a shelter or hotel room, but we are offering solutions to this problem in a humane way,” Trotman said. “But this is really about the public health issue, it’s not about eliminating tents.”
County officials are expected to hold a press conference on Wednesday to discuss the order further with media. We will continue to cover this story as it develops.
Become part of the Nerve: Help us continue to connect community and culture and tell the overlooked stories of everyday Charlotte. Get better connected and become a monthly donor to support our mission and opt-in to our email newsletter. And if you’re a patron of the arts in Charlotte, subscribe to the paper for the most in-depth coverage of the local scene you’ll find in town.