Mutual Aid Free Store Works With Displaced Neighbors
Clowns on the front line
Luke was the first, and perhaps most senior, team member with the Mutual Aid Free Store (MAFS) that I had the privilege to meet. He welcomed me by jumping up on me and licking my face.
Yes, Luke is a dog.
“Luke’s the star of the show,” said fellow team member Tyler Bone.
Once Luke hopped off me, I was able to meet the four other members of MAFS: Magena “Magic” Morris, Tyler “T-Bone” Bone, Nic “Texas” Feldt and Nic “Just Nic” White. Sitting on the back of a Dodge Caravan that overflowed with supplies, we waited for the day’s volunteers to join us.
The Mutual Aid Free Store (MAFS) formed in November 2020 as a response to Charlotte’s growing crisis of houselessness.
The organization, which is founded on principles of mutual aid and harm reduction, seeks to support those living on the streets by providing eviction crisis response, resources and education.
I followed MAFS on a day of service in January. Together, we set up free pop-up shops, stocked remote resource outposts, and connected with our displaced neighbors.
That afternoon, we discussed the shortcomings of Charlotte’s response to houselessness and the road ahead.
You might have heard of MAFS already. Even though the team partnered up less than two years ago, the organization has already built a presence in Charlotte.
In November 2020, one of the group’s first actions was to launch a postcard campaign demanding a response to the houselessness crisis from Mayor Vi Lyles. Then they set about doing the work themselves.
In November 2021, MAFS set up two community resource drop boxes, which they call Displaced Donation Stations, where people can drop off clothing, toiletries and other supplies for displaced neighbors.
Both projects have earned them national media attention and a sizable social media following thanks in part to their collaboration with local artists to make the boxes stand out.
But MAFS goes beyond awareness campaigns. The organization’s main focuses are eviction crisis response, helping tent-dwelling neighbors safely relocate after an encampment is cleared, and running the free store.
Typically operated every two weeks, the namesake free store is the most direct form of assistance MAFS can offer in a city where decades of inaction have led to a housing crisis that can make more broad support, such as finding a home for their displaced neighbors, seem impossible.
Our day of volunteering began with opening up the free store.
After a half-dozen volunteers showed up, Morris gathered us in a circle and had us introduce ourselves. She gave a quick explainer of what we were about to do: Build the pop-up shop, help clean up the tent sites and, above all, connect with our displaced neighbors.
“Hanging out with them — talking to them — is far more important than giving them their tenth toothbrush,” she said.
The spirit of connection drives MAFS’ artistic approach. Morris told me the postcard campaign wouldn’t have been possible without artwork from MAFS member Bone and their friend Maryssa Pickett, who also helped Morris paint the two colorful anthropomorphic donation stations named Scar and Slimer.
“People aren’t relating to or understanding the [houseless] community, so if I can reach them through art … then maybe that will work,” said Morris. “We’re trying to educate the community. Art is just a good way to do it. We’re fortunate to receive what we do because we’re all talented.”
“We’re also all very DIY by nature, too,” Bone added. “Always trying to do something new and different.”
The DIY spirit also runs strong in the pop-up shop. The donations collected from Scar and Slimer make up the bulk of the pop-up store’s free merchandise. MAFS also gives away enamel pins, books, ’zines and hot coffee.
MAFS makes a point of displaying the clothing on racks and in dressers. Instead of digging through trash bags or donation bins, houseless neighbors can pick out the items they want off the racks, and carry them away in shopping bags.
On the Sunday I joined them, Morris played a funky mix of punk, rap and children’s music over a portable speaker at the pop-up. As volunteers finished sorting and neighbors began shopping, Morris waved me over.
“Come on, let’s go for a walk.”
Teaming up against evictions
While Luke led us past NC Music Factory Boulevard, beyond the Salvation Army and the food bank, Morris told me about how MAFS got its start.
The group was borne of a partnership between two organizations, Not Fade Away and Bleach Impaired.
As COVID-19 exacerbated Charlotte’s housing crisis, leading to the formation of a large “Tent City” along 12th Street that made it so the city’s elite could no longer turn their cheek, the two organizations came together to create a free pop-up store for displaced Charlotteans.
As the team bonded with their neighbors dwelling in tents, they heard more and more complaints about evictions.
As with many Charlotte aid groups, Tent City evictions that occurred in August 2020 and February 2021 were a source of frustration and fear, but they’re far from the only evictions they’ve had to deal with. As we passed by a luxury apartment complex, Morris pointed to a bridge straddling NC Music Factory Boulevard.
In April 2021, the North Carolina Department of Transportation forced about 30 people living under that bridge to move, citing “health and safety concerns.”
Unlike the large transition that took place in February 2021, there was no media attention on this eviction, just the quiet displacement of dozens of neighbors trying to find their way in the world.
Morris led me to the barbed wire placed under the bridge after the eviction.
“That was such a disappointment,” she said, shaking her head.
Standing next to the bridge is a Duke Energy facility surrounded by a wooded enclave. In 2021, some 48 people were living on that property in tents.
Morris told me MAFS had an informal agreement with the property owners: So long as MAFS kept the surrounding areas clean and calm, they could continue dwelling there. That arrangement broke down in August due to escalating tensions among neighbors in the area. When police officers showed up to issue the eviction, MAFS acted as an intermediary to get everyone safely relocated with all their belongings.
With MAFS acting as a go-between, Morris said, “The cops never interacted with the neighbors. They just went to their car.”
MAFS’ approach to easing the stress of displacement is simple: When someone informs them of an eviction, the team helps the person or people affected pack up and store their belongings. Once the evicted party finds a new location, MAFS will deliver their belongings to them. MAFS then cleans up the former dwelling site for the landowner.
The team acts as a go-between for displaced people and the authorities, typically the police and landowners. When mass evictions take place, they work to ensure that all parties emerge safe and with all their belongings.
“We don’t work with the police,” Morris said. “But we’re both called to these things sometimes … When we keep our camps clean and we keep our camps quiet, they leave [displaced people] alone.”
The MAFS Clowns
The rest of the Sunday I spent with MAFS went smoothly enough. Volunteers checked in with neighbors living in tents throughout the area.
We restocked remote resource outposts and took orders from people.
We finished the day at “The Wall,” a longtime gathering point for displaced neighbors and aid groups in Charlotte.
Recently renamed from Phifer Avenue to Montford Point Street as part of a city commission’s task to rename streets named after leaders of the Confederacy and white supremacists, the eponymous wall stands just across North College Street from the Mecklenburg County Homeless Resource Center.
Under Feldt’s direction, the volunteer crew once again set up its pop-up shop.
As the evening rapidly chilled, neighbors came to get a cup of hot coffee and chat. That’s where I learned a little more about the Mutual Aid Free Clowns.
“It started out as a joke,” White said. “It still is, it’s also part of us now.”
Morris explained that the concept came from a stereotype she noticed while working alongside houseless people.
“When you serve the homeless, you’re immediately seen as a saint,” she said. “I think that’s what fuels a lot of nonprofit corruption, actually. People start targeting the homeless to build their own wealth. We call ourselves clowns because … by joking on our own self, it just humanizes us. We’re just people. We’re not heroes, we’re not saints.”
The clown trope plays into other aspects of MAFS, as well, Morris continued.
“We have worked an obscene amount of hours for free. That’s just clown behavior.”
After we closed up shop at the wall, we trooped over to Benny Pennello’s for dinner and drinks. The team was eager to unwind after a long day outside, and ready to process some of the challenges.
One of the main challenges MAFS encounters in this line of work is what the team views as an inadequate response from local government and larger-scale nonprofits.
MAFS primarily works with people who live in tents, not shelters, and while the shelter system has “a lot more responsibility on its shoulders,” there are still so many people falling through the cracks.
Local shelters have increased capacity as much as they can during the pandemic, but there are rules within the local shelter system that push some people away. The implementation of curfews, the segregation of men from women and children, and/or the policing of drug use, among other rules, can leave some folks feeling like shelters aren’t an option.
“The tent dwellers are the ones that can’t make it in shelters,” she said. “And so [MAFS is] now resolving those issues with literally no resources or even acknowledgement.”
I asked them what they wanted most from the city.
“I would like the city to see this as a possibly solvable problem,” said White. “I would really like the city to stop thinking that this can’t be fixed, because until that changes, it won’t be fixed.”
Morris added, “I just want one thing: just humanity. If people can bring humanity into service, the rest would just fall into place. I think MAFS is an example of that.”
“Like, quit going out of your way to evict people, you know what I mean?” said Bone.
As we ended the day in the Benny’s parking lot, the MAFS team told me one more thing: They wanted to do a photo for Queen City Nerve in clown noses.
“Are y’all gonna bring your own?” I joked.
Apparently so. When I looked up, all four — Bone in the driver’s seat of the Dodge, Morris halfway in another car, Feldt taking off their jacket, and White taking a pull of his vape — had snuck on their respective red clown noses. I doubled over in laughter.
“Told you,” said White. “Clowns.”
This work by Queen City Nerve is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.