No Shelter, No Peace
A Humanity Issue in the Heart of Charlotte, NC
In New York City, it is easy to spot them. Whether you step out your front door, walk down a crowded sidewalk, commute by the bustle of public transportation or drive in the luxury of your own car you will pass them by or pause to offer some spare change or a bite to eat. Some will be tucked away in the alcoves of the shadows of towering buildings nestled against tattered cardboard used as makeshift beds, couches, and living quarters covered by newspapers, blankets and sometimes nothing at all but the only clothes they own. Some push shopping carts that appear to be crammed with junk to the common passersby, but for them it is filled with their whole life.
Some ride on the trains and buses to keep warm during the harsh effects of winter or to grasp a little bit of cool air to escape the scorching sun during warmer months. They camp out in stations, on a piece of sidewalk or a park bench. Others live in the confines of their car and nobody would ever know it. Some have jobs or no jobs at all, addictions, no addictions, great health, or lack thereof, family and friends or are completely on their own. Some are complacent in their living situation and many more are diligently trying to push their way out of their circumstances. In New York City, where I am from, the appearance of homelessness is varied but also familiar.
In 2006, my mom moved from New York to North Carolina for a job and I lived with her for quite some time. Many residents of North Carolina do well socioeconomically, but if you travel within the outskirts of the city of Charlotte and to many of the surrounding towns you may see lines of distinction. Many along with myself did not realize the severity of the needs concerning the homeless population in Charlotte, North Carolina until the arrival of Covid-19 in March of this year.
At the height of Covid-19, everyone was taking refuge at home but restaurants remaining open for pick-up and delivery made the shutdown of our accustomed way of life bearable. On the way home from picking up dinner with my family one evening, we drove along 12th street and stopped at a red light. The roads were mostly vacant and the air eerily quiet as we all were becoming accustomed to our “new normal.” Looking out the window of the car we observed several blue tarps and tents saliently standing up on a grassed field. Turning right on 12th street, we quickly discovered the growing tent city full of a homeless community between N. College and 12th Street along the perimeter of the Urban Ministry Center, which has since merged with the Men’s Shelter under the name Roof Above.
During our first official visit to tent city, my sister, Kenya Joseph, and I learned that the needs of the people far exceeded just food and water and that behind each tent were different faces that had different stories to tell about how they ended up in tent city. Some have been displaced from housing due to natural disasters, job lay-offs, disability, addictions, lack of resources, and plenty of other reasons that extend outside of the stigmatization that being homeless comes with. Men, women, and children. It could be your brother, sister, friend, or child. It could be you.
The man with the machete latched to the pocket of his jeans who called himself “the governor” of the tent city gave me a tour of the community. He pointed to a vacant area in the grass next to an occupied tent. An empty spot awaited a newcomer needing refuge. At the time, there were about 50 tents in the area and now the community has grown to well over 1,000 with people moving in and out every day. As we made our way to the end of 12th street, we were shown the setup of communal sharing of resources where donated supplies were stored. The living conditions are unstable with the rise of occupants in the area and limited supplies. The flimsy material of the tarps is no match for inclement weather. A lack of security has increased crime in the area over the months and the residents’ safety is constantly in jeopardy.
While the occupants have camped along the Roof Above campus, the restricted aid has caused individual residents of Charlotte and surrounding areas to take matters into their own hands. Using the resources of our family’s nonprofit organization, Hearts and Hands Foundation, my family and I have been able to buy supplies for the occupants such as padlocks, waterproof tents, umbrellas, camping lights, and more and have helped them sign up for their stimulus checks back in May. My sister, Kenya, and a group of like-minded individuals who met each other while serving in the tent city formed a coalition called Hearts for the Invisible Charlotte Coalition with their main purpose to house the homeless and address the lack of affordable housing throughout Charlotte. Through their relentless efforts, they have been able to advocate for the homeless occupants helping them secure basic needs such as food, personal care and first aid supplies, community cleanup and sanitation, showers, and survival supplies such as tents, sleeping bags, clothing and even more.
With the rise of Covid-19 cases throughout Charlotte, there is growing concern for the lack of Covid testing for the occupants in the tent city. While people are in need of blankets and other basic necessities to merely survive another day living outside, the fly-swatting hand of government is busy with other tasks such as ushering the occupants to motels and shelters while also allowing most to remain outside on the grounds as long as they are not inhabiting on private property. Beds are being allocated for a lucky few to move to shelters and motels, but it is too little to accommodate the amount of people who are now living in and around tent city, nor does it address the inhumane and often dangerous experiences that many occupants have reported while being there.
Jessica Lefkowitz, the president of Hearts for the Invisible Charlotte Coalition, said that she started serving the tent community in April during Covid-19 after being furloughed from her job and that the biggest struggle in trying to help the occupants is not having access to the available resources that they need whether it be mental health care, tents, or helping women who have been beaten get into shelters, among other needs. “Right now, we are trying to get the local government to assist us in getting emergency shelter,” Lefkowitz said. “We do realize that not everyone is going to want to go into emergency shelter but we feel as though it is a necessity for them to have the option and then inside those shelters, for them to have resources accessible to them to get back on their feet.”
While the expansion of tent city and homelessness throughout the city is an ever-growing issue, occupants are homeless but still hopeful. There remains a great need for the consistent efforts of the larger Charlotte community and the organizations equipped with the financial resources to provide them with long-term solutions to give them a fighting chance at life. “I would like for the city to address the issue at all. They haven’t addressed it which to me is the biggest problem. They haven’t offered any long-term solutions. I think they have relied on the grassroots community organizations to handle the situation. I think now we are past that point, it’s time for them to step in and help us. That is basically what we are asking for. Help us help them,” Lefkowitz said.
On Monday, December 14, the Hearts for the Invisible Charlotte Coalition engaged in an in-person protest at the Charlotte Mecklenburg Government Center 600 East 4th Street from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. to demand that the city as well as the organizations on the ground create definitive and real action to address the growing tent communities around Charlotte. Kenya who is the vice president of the Hearts for the Invisible Charlotte Coalition said, “No shelter, No peace!” as the Coalition also demanded that the city aggressively advocates for Governor Roy Cooper to extend Executive Order #171 to stay evictions past its expiration on December 31. Their protest addressed the lack of action and the apathy of Mayor Vi Lyles and the Charlotte City Council. Their call to action was for the survival of the citizens of Charlotte who have been forgotten, invisible and left outside.
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