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Charlotte and Its People Experiencing Homelessness

DNCA while back, House the Homeless blog looked at how cities prepare for the Olympic Games, political gatherings, and other large-scale events. Mostly, they take extreme measures to remove street people, giving them bus tickets to anywhere else, or corralling them in an area unlikely to attract tourists. Sometimes they’re kept off the streets by relatively benign means, like free tickets to museums or movies.

If their papers are not in order, it’s easy enough to just turn them over to la migra. Tales are told of increased arrests and imprisonments for petty violations. Makeshift shacks and lean-tos are of course demolished, and the Potemkin Village syndrome comes into play. (Supposedly, when the ruler of Russia, Catherine the Great, was touring around to inspect her country, some functionary named Potemkin traveled ahead and built impressive-looking facades of prosperous villages, like film sets.) In those circumstances, people very much resent being moved around like dirt swept under a rug.

In the county that contains Charlotte, NC, site of this year’s Democratic Convention, about 5,000 people are experiencing homelessness, and fewer than 1,000 regularly sleep in shelter beds. Some live in cars.

Apparently quite a few fall under a slightly different definition of homelessness, where technically the person has a place to sleep, even if it is a very insecure and temporary position on somebody’s couch. It is estimated that fewer than 100 hardcore, long-term homeless people live totally outdoors. The situation has certainly not been improving. According to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, in 2010, family homelessness in Charlotte increased by 36%, and in 2011, increased another 21%.

During the convention planning, Mark Price kept track on behalf of the Charlotte Observer. A group called Charlotte Center City Partners took a great deal of interest in humane alternatives. The director of the local Men’s Shelter met with the convention promoters; and took on extra staff and trained them to help the street people understand the rules and restrictions that would apply during the convention. There were a lot of places you couldn’t go with a backpack or a shopping cart, but also plenty of information about how to stay out of trouble.

The city passed a new law against camping on public property. The transit center was moved to a temporary location several blocks away, and the main library was just plain closed for the duration. To make up for the loss of these hangouts, the Homeless Resource Center prolonged its usual hours, and other venues figured out ways to allow for more people to be present during the days.

Many homeless advocates foresaw that the biggest impact would fall in the “transition housing” category, mainly the economy-class motels where low-income families exist crammed together in one room. It would be particularly harmful to school-age children, because almost none of the families have the transportation necessary to get their kids to school from anyplace but where they’ve been living.

But Charlotte planned ahead. A $20,000 fund was raised by businesses, churches, and the government, to help with rent. Thirty-six churches figured out how to provide for nearly a 100 extra beds on the average convention night. As David Jamieson reported for The Huffington Post, motels multiplied their rates as much as tenfold, for the convention period. He and others spoke with some displaced people, most of whom admitted that they were behind on their rent anyway, and seemed not to blame the business owners.

Because the economy is so slack and the opportunities so few, people end up in these “transitional” situations for years, long enough to take a philosophical attitude about being moved out for a week or more. (Or is that just a journalistic Potemkin Village?)

Jamieson has some good news:

Not every motel, however, chose to pounce on the short-term windfall. Monica Wojtkowski, general manager at an Extended Stay America near the airport, said the hotel didn’t raise rates or ask current guests to leave. ‘This is just the philosophy we had. We want to maintain good public relations,’ she said.

When the president’s outdoor speech in a stadium had to be moved indoors, Mark Price followed the story. For whatever reason, the food could not follow to the new venue, so Second Harvest mobilized, called all the soup kitchens and shelters to see how much their refrigerators could hold, and delivered 7,500 pounds of fancy catered vittles to the people experiencing homelessness.

The Charlotte Observer opined:

After the Democrats pack up and hit the campaign trail, 3,000 or more homeless adults and children will still be here. Both of the city’s primary shelters are often over capacity, and nonprofits such as Crisis Assistance Ministry are working overtime to keep people in their homes. It’s tragic that Charlotte — a can-do city, as landing the DNC attests — can’t-do on homelessness. More than four years after Charlotte and Mecklenburg governments endorsed a 10-year plan to end homelessness, the community has made little progress in implementing a comprehensive strategy to truly fix the problem.

Unfortunately, the current situation seems to follow the Waterbed Paradigm. Remember waterbeds? You can sit on one, and the water will be suppressed. It will also create a bulge in some other part of the mattress. The dent you make by sitting on the waterbed is an illusion. There may be less of it in one spot, but there is still the same amount of water in the bag.

In a recent speech, President Obama said:

The young woman I met at a science fair who won national recognition for her biology research while living with her family at a homeless shelter — she gives me hope.

Isn’t it supposed to be the other way around?

Reactions?

Source: “Charlotte won’t hide the homeless during the DNC,” CharlotteObserver.com, 08/21/12
Source: “Charlotte Homeless Outside DNC Cling To Motels,” The Huffington Post, 09/05/12
Source: “Let’s help homeless beyond DNC week,” CharlotteObserver.com, 08/27/12
Source: “Local charities benefit from 8,000 pounds of food leftover from DNC’s canceled stadium event,” CharlotteObserver.com, 09/07/12
Source: “Remarks by the President at the Democratic National Convention,” WhiteHouse.gov, 09/06/12
Image by Stevebott (Steve Bott).