Justin Fedor was driving past a homeless tent encampment in Charlotte when one of his stepchildren asked the question that sparked his latest musical and philanthropic venture. The exchange is the emotional center of a direct and somber video that announces the launch of Love Thy Neighbor, A Tribute to Benefit Roof Above, scheduled for Jan. 15.
“We talk about the many reasons a person ends up sleeping at the side of the road in a tent,” Fedor narrates as the camera sweeps past images of people struggling to survive in the dead of winter. “And the 7-year-old wants to know who’s doing anything to help these people.”
The star-studded virtual concert, which goes up on Jan. 15 at 8 p.m., will benefit Roof Above, a charitable organization that formed from the merger of Urban Ministry Center and Men’s Shelter of Charlotte in May 2019. Featuring local and national acts, Love Thy Neighbor will pay homage to iconic musical artists who passed away in 2020.
Collaborating with musician and filmmaker Chris Walldorf of Charlotte mood-rockers Moa, Fedor produced the video that lays out his reasons for supporting Roof Above.
“I can’t look [my children] in the eye, and say, ‘Well, nobody is helping so far. We’re waiting to hear what the city has to say about it,’” Fedor tells Queen City Nerve. “If we’re waiting to see what the city has to say, we’re going to keep waiting.”
Charlotte’s homeless crisis, compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic and a severe shortage of affordable housing, demands action now, Fedor insists. To that end, he’s also set up a GoFundMe page dedicated to raising $100,000 to aid Roof Above’s efforts to help the homeless.
“I wish the GoFundMe would be enough,” Fedor says. “I hope before we get to January 15 the fundraising will already be done.” Ideally the concert would raise bonus funds, but beyond that, the show will offer something to the community. “I’m not trying to tell people to give Roof Above money without giving them something in return.”
The only solution is housing
The ball got rolling in November when Fedor reached out to Roof Above and asked if they had any fundraising plans involving Charlotte’s music community. On learning they had none, he said he’d get back to them and started organizing. Roof Above CEO Liz Clasen-Kelly says she first learned that a benefit concert was brewing when a former staffer told her in passing that some musicians were staging the concert to help her organization.
“I thought, ‘That’s nice’” Clasen-Kelly says laughing. She assumed the concert would be a modest affair, but on a Christmas Eve phone call with Fedor, he told her the details of Love Thy Neighbor — the event’s scope, scale and $100,000 target.
“[They’re] taking bold action through music for our neighbors experiencing homelessness,” Clasen-Kelly says.
Certainly, the money would be well spent on any of Roof Above’s ongoing efforts.
“We are huge believers that housing is the solution for homelessness,” she says.
In the midst of the pandemic, Roof Above is currently operating four emergency shelters for men while partnering with Salvation Army to provide shelter for women and families, bringing the total number of operating shelters to five.
The newest shelter is in a former hotel that Roof Above purchased in 2020 that’s located on Clanton Road at I-77. It’s patterned on Moore Place, a housing complex the organization opened in 2012 that provides residents with onsite case managers, a nurse, a part-time psychiatrist and a staff member who holds group activities. Funds are needed to help renovate the former hotel so it can replicate Moore Place, home to 129 people.
“There’s nearly three acres to accompany that hotel, which creates some privacy,” Clasen-Kelly offers. “Even though it borders I-77, there’s a sense of peace on the property.”
Roof Above aims to open permanent housing at the former hotel for 88 people by the end of 2021. In the meantime, the organization doesn’t want the structure to go unused.
“Right after we got it, we [entered] into this partnership with Salvation Army so that they could utilize it to shelter women and families in the winter time,” Clasen-Kelly explains. “We’re able to cover some of [Salvation Army’s] operating expenses, and they provided the staffing to operate the shelters.
Although the property will remain an emergency shelter through the winter, by late spring or early summer, that shelter will wind down, and Roof Above will start renovations.
But most public attention is focused on another homeless settlement: Tent City, the encampment along West 12th Street that has become emblematic of the city’s and county’s failure to address the affordable housing crisis. The encampment has expanded since forming in March, and it’s impossible to ignore, as it runs parallel to I-277.
“This encampment is in the consciousness of our community in a whole new way,” Clasen-Kelly says. “[Our] community is saying, ‘This isn’t who we want to be. This isn’t acceptable.’”
Tent City first formed outside of Roof Above’s Day Services Center. Formerly known as Urban Ministry Center, Roof Above’s Day Services Center consists of a renovated train station and a new building in which people can take showers, do laundry, pick up mail and get connected to services such as emergency shelters, short-term housing and long-term supportive housing. The center also offers street outreach, a nurse and case management.
According to Fedor, Roof Above served 4,371 different people through their programs last year. The number increases when the soup kitchen and other outreach efforts are included.
“Between all the campuses, we serve about 1,200 people a day,” Clasen-Kelly says.
Roof Above’s programs also helped move 403 people out of homelessness and into affordable housing in 2020, according to Fedor.
The number of homeless people in all of Mecklenburg County was at 2,782 as of Huly 31, 2020, according to the county’s Housing and Homelessness Dashboard.
“Sadly, there’s always hundreds of people unsheltered in our community for many years now,” Clasen-Kelly offers.
Concerts for the children
Fedor, 43, is no stranger to taking action to benefit his neighbors. The founder of Charlotte roots rock combo The New Familiars also plays with indie psychedelia foursome Ancient Cities and Americana act Fedor & the Denim Denim, and has organized tribute concerts to benefit Levine Children’s Hospital for the past seven years.
“I’m in the business of putting on concerts,” Fedor says. By his reckoning he’s put on 17 concerts to benefit Levine Children’s Hospital since 2013. He started doing the concerts after several of his friends started dealing with their children’s’ illnesses and hospitalizations. Other than listening to his friends’ problems, he felt he couldn’t do anything to help.
“One day I decided that I didn’t want to feel helpless anymore,” Fedor remembers. “I wanted to help those people.”
He decided to organize a benefit show for Levine. As the concert came together, Fedor heard that Ray Manzarek, keyboardist for The Doors, had died. Fedor hit upon a theme for the gig: Various Charlotte musicians would play two to three cover versions of Doors tunes to pay tribute to Manzarek and his musical legacy.
That first benefit established a template that Fedor followed for subsequent shows benefiting Levine, ranging from a 2013 Lou Reed tribute after the Velvet Underground founder died to a tribute to Tom Petty after the beloved singer-songwriter passed in 2017.
Soon, Fedor began to diversify his shows’ themes.
“Let’s be honest,” Fedor says. “[The new themes] started because it’s kind of grim to always do a concert when people die.”
In September 2015, Fedor realized the 14th anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks was coming up. The date became the basis of a tribute to the music of New York City, with local musicians covering music by Patti Smith, Bob Dylan, The Ramones and more.
Soon the benefit shows branched out to tributes devoted to decades — the music of the ’80s and the music of the ’90s. The concerts were all live at the Neighborhood Theatre, with anything from 12 to 15 bands playing covers, whether it was Traveling Wilburys or the Everly Brothers.
That all changed when the COVID-19 pandemic swept through the city and necessitated the shutdown of Charlotte’s music venues. Fedor pivoted with online concerts. When John Prine passed in 2020, Fedor put together a virtual tribute, posting a different John Prine cover from a different artist every day for the month of June.
Charlotte artists were joined by regional and national players like B.J. Barham of American Aquarium, Graham Sharp of Steep Canyon Rangers and Travis T. Warren of Blind Melon.
In August, Fedor organized a tribute to iconic Black artists in support of Black Lives Matter. Every video that was posted linked directly to the Levine Children’s Hospital website, where viewers could make donations.
The homeless situation is so severe, Fedor believes, that he’s temporarily diverging from his longstanding relationship with Levine to marshal Charlotte’s musical community to aid Roof Above with Love Thy Neighbor. But that doesn’t mean he’s had a break with the hospital, he insists.
“We’ll be back to serving Levine Children’s Hospital in the future,” Fedor stresses. “[But] we’re in a crisis here. The best thing I can do is equip the people on the front line every day.”
Love Thy Neighbor
Love Thy Neighbor will pay tribute to all the exceptional artists who passed away in 2020.
“Being a virtual [concert], we were able to put together a bill that we wouldn’t necessarily be able to do if this were just a show at the Neighborhood Theatre,” Fedor says. Booking the electric and far-reaching bill fell to Fedor with help from Maxx Music’s Gregg McCraw and Chris Walldorf of Sioux Sioux Studios.
Musicians will cover artists such as Van Halen, John Prine, Rush, Billy Joe Shaver, Little Richard, Fountains Of Wayne and more. Each artist’s contributions will be pre-recorded, some from studios spread across the country.
One of the biggest booking coups was getting Adam Lazzara, lead singer of Taking Back Sunday, onboard. Though the band had its beginnings in Charlotte, they’ve outgrown the city since, and only one member (guitarist John Nolan) still lives in the Queen City.
Fedor and Lazzara first hooked up years ago and had been talking about getting a “Tribute to Benefit” concert together for years. “Every time we were going to do a tribute, his studio had something going on.” It never worked out for the two to reconnect until now.
“Jeremy Lynn Woodall, who is Billy Joe Shaver’s longtime guitar player [is] playing a song down in Texas to pay tribute to Billy Joe Shaver,” Fedor says. “Tyler Ramsey from Band of Horses [is] recording a song up in the foothills of North Carolina.”
Graham Sharp of Steep Canyon Rangers is providing a tune, to be joined on the bill by Jim Lauderdale and Charlotte performers like Benji Hughes, Petrov, Moa, Swim in the Wild, Time Sawyer, Alright, Ian Pasquini, The Eyebrows, Elonzo Wesley, Wes Hamilton and more. Both Sharp and Lauderdale have won Grammys.
Fedor will record with his current roots music project Fedor & the Denim Denim. In addition, he will play bass in Chris Shinn’s band. Shinn, the son of former Charlotte Hornets owner George Shinn, was previously the lead singer with Live. His band will cover a tune by Mazzy Star.
Fedor will also reteam with his bandmates in Ancient Cities for Love Thy Neighbor. In November, Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter Nicole Atkins booked Ancient Cities to play at her Last Waltz Tribute, a recreation of The Band’s memorable farewell concert, originally held on Thanksgiving weekend in 1976.
“That got us all itching to play together after taking a whole year off, so we’re working up a number,” Fedor offers.
Charlotte artists will record their songs at Queen City concert venues that have opened their doors for Love Thy Neighbor, including Middle C Jazz, Neighborhood Theatre, Petra’s and GrindHaus, Jason Jet’s new coworking music studio.
With a growing concert bill and playlist, helping local artists to record safely at Charlotte venues has become a logistical challenge.
“We have to clear the room and sanitize everything and have enough time for the air to circulate,” he says. “Then we bring the artist in and make sure that everybody stays safe.”
“It’s a beautiful thing to see everybody come together,” Fedor offers. Donations are already coming in to the GoFundMe page, and concert information and the promotional video are both being shared on social media.
With private donations coming in, Fedor is hoping that in the course of the next two weeks businesses will come forward and pledge assistance. Perhaps some larger corporations could pledge to match what is raised by the concert, he suggests.
“The concert is going to be pre-recorded so I’ll be happy to put someone’s logo up on the screen,” Fedor says with a chuckle. “I’ve got no problem with that.”
As important as the fundraising is, Fedor stresses the importance of the energy generated by the event. It’s starting 2021 off with a feeling of possibility, he says, the energy of giving to others and helping each other out.
A person with solutions
Growing up in the South with an adopted Black brother, Fedor learned early on about injustice. Sticking up for what’s right became important to him. He attributes those values to his parents’ influence.
“It [became] a personal passion … to be a person with solutions,” Fedor says. “That’s why I want to do a benefit concert like this. It seems like the right thing to do … Each of us has a responsibility and a debt to pay back to our society. If you want a better society you’ve got to figure out a way to make it better.”
Raising funding for Roof Above seemed an obvious way to better the community. Clasen-Kelly thinks housing is critical to people’s stability and their ability to have a meaningful life. Charlotte — and the nation — needs to rethink how we handle housing, she says, and how we support people we don’t have it.
“The lives of people experiencing homelessness are as valuable as the lives of people with housing,” she offers, noting that a person could work two full-time jobs at minimum wage in Charlotte and still not afford housing. “If people felt and understood the full humanity of someone experiencing homelessness, it would change a lot of [their] actions.”
“I’ve seen people coming out of those tents with babies,” Fedor says. “I’ve never seen this before in my lifetime.”
In addition to raising much-needed funds for Roof Above, he hopes to bring people together through music.
“People love the healing factor of music,” he says. But he also want to shine a spotlight on homelessness and the affordable-housing crisis so we as a community can bring some resolution to the issue.
“It’s tough to talk about this subject, but for our neighbors, ourselves and our communities, we can do better,” he says. “We have to do better.”
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