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Opinion: Tent City Isn’t New, It’s Newly Visible

Hello, homelessness

Charlotte City Council member Malcolm Graham recently wrote an editorial in the Charlotte Observer about the area in Charlotte known as “Tent City,” a large collection of homeless encampments, primarily on the northern end of Uptown on North College, West 12th and North Tryon streets. He argues that resources to support Charlotteans currently living in tents are already in place and that it’s simply a matter of redirecting people, setting a deadline and closing the camp. I am deeply troubled by Graham’s distorted perspective. 
 
His voice is one of many confidently speaking out about how Charlotte leaders will “solve” this problem while ignoring how decisions about how space and resources are allocated in Charlotte played a major role in creating the problem they are now so confident they can solve.
Tent city
Tent City is home to a large portion of Charlotte’s homeless population. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)
I recently reviewed some video interviews I conducted through my nonprofit Hope Vibes during the first week of COVID-19 shutdowns and came across a conversation we had with a homeless neighbor named Anthony. Listening again, I had a disturbing and amazing realization: Our neighbors didn’t create the Tent City we see today, we did. Let me explain. 
 
When COVID-19 hit our region back in March 2020, our shelters, based on CDC recommendations, were forced to significantly reduce their number of residential intakes to allow for social distancing. They were forced to send people seeking shelter away with a tent and sleeping bag. City leaders allowed them to set up near the Roof Above Day Services Center, formerly known as Urban Ministry Center, to be in close proximity to available resources. As the number of individuals experiencing homelessness increased, that area became more and more populated. When addressing Tent City, we must not forget how and why Tent City was formed. We must not punish our homeless neighbors for living in a space we all designated for them.
 
 
Graham, citing the additional capacity of shelters and motel rooms, argues there are plenty of open beds available for individuals living in Tent City. Graham speculates that many of our homeless neighbors don’t want to stay in the allocated congregate spaces because of fear of COVID-19. But many people refused to stay in the shelters prior to the pandemic. 
 
When I talk to our neighbors on the streets, the number one reason they tell me they choose not to stay in shelters is that they aren’t safe. The number one reason I hear for not staying in the designated motels is that they don’t meet predetermined qualifications. Just a few weeks ago, I was talking to a lady in the encampment who told me, “I tried to go and get one of those rooms and they told me I don’t qualify. Here I am, working a full-time job, trying to get my life together, staying out here in this tent … but they say I don’t qualify.”
 
How do we respond to people like her? 
 
The narrative that’s so often pushed by people in positions of authority is that the majority of people living on the streets are out there because they want to be. “They are on drugs, they have extreme mental health issues and they don’t want better for themselves.” We are reassured that solutions are already in place, but folks experiencing homelessness are “too self-destructive” to access them. Are there individuals experiencing homelessness who struggle with addiction, mental health and motivation? Yes, just as a portion of people with housing have these same struggles. But the vast majority of the people we serve week to week are unhoused for one reason: Charlotte lacks affordable housing. The “solutions” Graham assures us are in place do not address the primary driver of homelessness.
 
 
Charlotte has devoted a lot of financial resources to addressing homelessness. But that’s where many of us who serve this community struggle. Graham himself mentions the city has dedicated $30 million towards Tent City since the wake of COVID-19. The question I’m often asked by both citizens and homeless neighbors living in the various tent camps and shelters — pre-and post-COVID-19 — is where exactly do all these resources end up? Just two weeks ago, Charlotte City Council approved a multi-billion dollar plan, ($8-12 billion, yes, with a “B”) to extend the light rail to Matthews and Gaston County. It’s hard to hear leaders say there’s not enough funds to adequately address homelessness in our city. Lack of resources isn’t the real problem, it’s lack of will.
 
housing instability in Charlotte
Cortez Gilbert was one of the first ones to set up at Tent City near Uptown. He told Queen City Nerve in April he felt officials had let homeless people down. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)
 
In December, the city worked with partners to fund the purchase of a motel for $5.45 million to transition people from the streets into short-term housing. The building’s renovation will cost another $12 million. But the finished product will only contain 88 single units. The most recent count of individuals experiencing homelessness in Charlotte-Mecklenburg is over 3,000. How is it a solution to spend $18 million to serve only 88 people? 
 

Renovating old motel buildings is an approach adopted by other regions, but Charlotte could make a different choice. We could lead the nation in innovative disruption. How many non-traditional housing solutions or rent subsidies could we have funded with that $18 million? Our city is full of creative, community-focused solution cultivators who are ready to lead new initiatives. Instead of always listening to the same leaders who got us where we are, why don’t we allow others — maybe even our homeless neighbors — to create new solutions?

Leveraging the local talent we already have, we can more efficiently allocate these funds to create long-term affordable housing opportunities with appropriate programming that help more people get back on their feet and change the narrative for how we help people experiencing homelessness on a local and national scale. 

Mr. Graham is content with getting rid of the “eyesore” of tent city. But many of us want to disrupt the systems that created it. We don’t care how the tents look in contrast to the impressive skyline, we care that our most vulnerable neighbors — many of whom are working the minimum wage jobs our city depends on — don’t have anywhere else to live. Tent City isn’t new, it’s newly visible. People have been living in tent cities in the shadows of Charlotte for years. Why didn’t we care about Tent City then — or do we only care now because we can see it? 
 
Mr. Graham calls for a team of leaders to work to disband the camp humanely; I’m calling for a team of leaders who will work to aggressively pursue tangible, implementable solutions to house our neighbors. Let’s fill that team with individuals who work outside the current systems, think outside the box and are willing to take creative calculated risks. The real movers and shakers in our city aren’t interested in another task force or committee to just talk about the problem. 
 
Mecklenburg County Point-in-Time Count
A part of Tent City at the intersection of West 12th and North College streets. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)
We don’t want to create plans that will sit on the shelf for years as a meaningless monument of faux success. We want creative exit strategies that can be implemented now to help people transition into safe and secure housing while simultaneously walking alongside them in a journey to total life wholeness and stability. If Charlotte-Mecklenburg really wants to move the needle on ending homelessness in our city, we must have leaders who will, without compromise, prioritize people over appearances. Without this firm foundation, all local efforts to shift the narrative of homelessness in our city are dead-end streets. 
 
Adrienne C. Threatt is the executive director of Hope Vibes Inc., a local nonprofit developing creative exit strategies to end homelessness through direct relief, research, innovation, advocacy and systemic disruption. Hello Homelessness is a new Hope Vibes advocacy initiative created to re-introduce the true faces and facts of homelessness in Charlotte and throughout the nation. Learn more about their work in the Charlotte region by visiting hopevibes.org.
 

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7 Comments

  1. Well then what’s your solution? I don’t see one. Look, I feel you whole-heartedly (that’s a word right?), it sucks and folks deserve better… But so does my neighborhood! I’m not just talking aesthetics, yes it’s certainly an image problem for Charlotte, but those camps are impacting safety on many different levels, they’re impacting economic development, they are impacting surrounding families that chose nearby neighborhoods to raise their children in. It should never have been allowed to expand as much as it did. I, like many others who like to consider themselves a compassionate person, looked past it during the pandemic (still going), and said “well they shouldn’t be crammed inside a shelter – that’s not safe – and if they want to be outside that’s their prerogative as a human. – I’m fine with this, hopefully it doesn’t get worse.” Well over the past year it did get a lot worse and the expansion of the “tent city” is crazy exponential. It has to be curtailed and it’s to the point where some sort of loitering law or something needs to be enforced so the tents are removed. Not the ideal solution, or at least not a resolution to the real problem, but perhaps it’s a reset so we can start with more control over the situation and focus on the people rather than the tents. I can dream about a society where we can employ the homeless to build their own homes, and that local government could provide programs to help facilitate this, and partner with local investors to fund it etc, but unfortunately, a councilman’s call for action to remove the tents is the best we’re gonna get, period. Enforcing a law is the only solution for this current situation. I genuinely, sincerely, hope and to some extent believe it is possible to achieve a better multi-faceted solution to the growing homeless population. However I’m not naive enough to think it’s going to happen soon. It takes time for more people like you and I, and society in general to be the majority ruling age of government. Give it another 20 years. Thank you for voicing your opinion, it encourage compassion – a cornerstone value that our community needs. Disclaimer – please don’t make this political or about law enforcement, you’re barking up the wrong tree.

  2. Thank you for this information. It’s shocking to see the $18 million going to help 88 people. Breaking that down, that’s almost $205,000 per person. Good lord, are you saying we can buy them a house for $150k and provide training for a job in order to keep the house? Then let’s do it. Could it really be that easy? I don’t know what the answer is, but putting it in black and white print: $18 million to help 88 people should be a huge wake up call. And it’s absolutely unacceptable that the woman in your article is WORKING but doesn’t qualify for a place to live. Ridiculous. If you or I can see the disparity, why can’t those in charge? I was shocked and saddened when a few months ago I heard the City of Charlotte actually encouraged Tent City. Where is the dignity in that? And yes, I’m active in my community and yes I want to help in solving these issues. The problem seems to be a very small group of people are making the so called solutions that don’t make sense. We must have those that are living there be a part of the solution. Thank you for bringing this to the forefront again.

  3. This article does not get to the root of the homeless problem. Saying that people are homeless because of the high cost of providing a roof is simplistic. If that were the only cause, the person could move to a lower cost of living area and obtain an entry level job starting at $12/hour. They could then find other people to share living expenses with.

    The real reasons are much more complex. Poor education and dropping out of school. Why don’t you propose training these individuals for the many unfilled jobs that pay a living wage? Or training them for a trade? Plumbers, electricians, etc are in short supply. Why aren’t you on CMS to provide a real education to our children? Why aren’t you railing against the economic disaster that single parent households bring? Teach these people how to compete at the game of life instead of teaching them to be victims

  4. The lady who works full time can be subsidized at the local level. Why not place her, and others working that are in a homeless situation, in an extended stay hotel, where they would pay a percentage of the rent, and the city picking up the rest. It would serve as transitional housing, until more permanent housing could be found.

  5. My reply was censored by this publication. Suffice it to say that this article fails to address the root causes of homelessness.

  6. Yet another Democrat run city turned to sh*t. Then when people have had enough and flee to red states (like people in NY, MN and CA are already doing), they’ll continue to keep voting for their failed ideologies and ruin those cities too.

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