At first glance, the motel looks abandoned. The sign out front is empty. Cones block much of the entrance. Just a couple of cars sit in the parking lot.
As I enter around the cones at 12:30 p.m. on a Monday afternoon, however, I see some signs of life. Women in scrubs push carts along the hallways outside the three floors of rooms. A woman drops a bag of food outside each occupied room, then knocks and keeps it moving. After about 30 seconds — the amount of time the tenants have been asked to wait after hearing the knock — a man pokes his head out of the room, looks outside for a second or two, then picks up the food and goes back in, shutting the door behind him.
Outside of one empty room, a man zips up a white, full-body biohazard suit before picking up a tank of cleaning solutions and entering the room. As I drive around to the back of the building, two security officers flag down my car and ask what I’m doing on the property. I tell them I’m a journalist doing some reporting about Mecklenburg County’s quarantine motel and that I just wanted to check it out for myself. They thank me and continue walking through the lot.
It’s long been known that the best move for anyone who tests positive for COVID-19 is to quarantine in their home. But what about those without homes?
For months, the county has been running this hotel for unsheltered people who have tested positive for the coronavirus and have nowhere to quarantine. But after an outbreak at the Roof Above men’s shelter on North Tryon Street led to more than 100 infections there, officials have been scrambling to find everyone suitable quarantine accommodations. Most of the men ended up here in the county’s quarantine motel on Queen City Drive in west Charlotte, but the outbreak put the motel at capacity, and Roof Above has had to place some confirmed cases in other motels where the organization provides shelter to some of the more than 3,000 Charlotte residents without homes.
In response to the outbreak, Roof Above is now closing the men’s shelter indefinitely and will shelter men by placing them in rooms at two motels that the organization operates in Charlotte. Roof Above, which formed as the result of a merger between The Men’s Shelter of Charlotte and Urban Ministry Center, also purchased a third motel in May that houses vulnerable folks 65 years old and older and is run in partnership with the Salvation Army.
The organization still runs a nightly winter shelter on Statesville Avenue with 116 beds, which Roof Above spokesperson Randall Hitt says hasn’t reached capacity yet this year.
According to Mecklenburg County Public Health, as of Jan. 24, there had only been five confirmed cases of COVID-19 at the North Tryon men’s shelter. Three days later, there were 52, and by Feb. 3, 101 people at the shelter had tested positive, including three staff members.
Yahya Randolph was one of the men’s shelter residents who tested positive. He hadn’t experienced any symptoms but was part of the mass testing that followed the first positive tests.
Randolph believes it was one of his fellow residents who works in janitorial services at a local hospital who brought it into the shelter.
“You have everybody from different walks of life at the shelter,” Randolph explains. “You got people that go out there panhandling, they see 100 different people, you got some people that go to work, you got some people that sit in the shelter all day. It’s a guess who’s coming in and who’s coming out with it.”
Hitt says the shelter had implemented policies they hoped would help prevent any outbreak or cluster within the facility, but providing services and shelter to nearly 200 men each day, not including those who receive services at the nearby Day Services Center, brings with it inherent risk.
“The best prevention against COVID is about not being around anybody, but we naturally have services that bring people together,” Hitt says. “So it was just engaging in all of the best practices among a couple hundred shelter guests to ensure that we put ourselves in the best possible position for prevention.”
He says the staff changed its food service, removed popular congregation areas such as the community television, put up barriers around the shelter and screened for symptoms during the daily check-in at 4:30 p.m. Despite these measures, mass testing confirmed the staff’s worst fear, a large cluster of cases that Hitt says was nearly undetectable due to the large number of asymptomatic residents who tested positive.
Randolph claims the temperature checks didn’t become a part of the daily check-in until the first resident tested positive. He says his recent experience confirmed his earlier hesitations about entering the shelter. Randolph has been without a home in Charlotte for three years now. He has been in and out of psychiatric treatment centers in that time, but also deals with physical disabilities including a partial amputation on his foot and a spinal cord stimulator in his back.
He lived in the sprawling encampment that’s come to be known as Tent City during parts of 2020, but entered the shelter in the fall, as his body does not cope well with cold weather.
“If I didn’t have so many handicaps and disabilities I would have stayed in the tent, but the cold air bothers me real bad, so I couldn’t stay out in the cold,” Randolph tells Queen City Nerve over the phone from his motel room. “I hardly know anyone who stays in a tent who has gotten COVID. They deal with people who bring food and stuff but they don’t deal with a large amount of different things going on.”
Skepticism and reluctance toward local shelters has been a concern among Charlotte’s neighbors experiencing homelessness since long before COVID-19. Some do not like the lack of privacy, others have had experiences with assault or theft in the past.
In November, county officials emphasized that service organizations had an available bed for every resident living in Tent City if they wanted it, but claimed that most had turned down the offer. While Hitt can’t confirm if this is still the case — the situation at Tent City is fluid and the closure of the men’s shelter has slightly cut the number of available beds — he hopes the new focus on motels will help bring in more reluctant folks like Randolph to sign up for a room.
“Where we’re focused is making sure that we have as many beds online as we can,” Hitt says. “That puts us in the best possible position to serve everybody and continue to focus on our outreach engagement that really works with folks to put them on the path to shelter — connect them to the right resources or ultimately get them into housing.”
As for Randolph, he says what comes next for him is “guesswork” until his quarantine expires on Feb. 10, at which time he’ll be moved to a neighboring motel. Until then, he’s spending his time with his new roommate on Queen City Drive, each of them unsure of their future.
“We just sit in here together and watch movies and just deal with it the best way we can,” he says. “I have plenty of time doing nothing in here.”
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