CHARLOTTE, NC - One effect of the affordable housing crisis is the number of homeless people in Charlotte. Last year, there were 1,400 people living on the streets in Mecklenburg County. While 85% stay in shelters, officials say 15% sleep on the streets.
Elisa Lovern has been homeless for the past six months. She told Channel 9 she sleeps on the benches outside of Discovery Place on N Tryon St. She is worried that people are trying to push her out.
"I got three tickets because I slept on this bench … They [Police] don’t want us sleeping on them," said Lovern.
Lovern said she has to hide her belongings under benches so police and the city don’t take them.
"They threw my blankets, my sleeping bag, all my food away because they said I wasn’t sitting right here," said Lovern.
That cycle is a problem many others face in Charlotte. When shelters are full, people use donated items to set up camp. There are some people that stay near the Music Factory, others at an area off 9Th Street, or under Uptown bridges. Officer Russ Faulkenberry and Officer Brad Hall said most of the time they let them stay there.
"It falls on us to walk that line of enforcing the law, and then the compassion side," said Officer Faulkenberry.
"We try to encourage them to seek help, seek resources, but if the property owner has the property open, and it’s not posted 'no trespassing,' we can’t necessarily make anyone leave anyway," said Officer Hall.
Both officers said they have to take some sort of action when they receive complaints.
Late last year, police were called about a homeless camp on N College Street, between the Urban Ministry Center and MorningStar Storage. There were nearly a dozen people living there with tents lined up along fences. It became an issue when tents blocked access to the businesses, or were set up too close to traffic.
A spokesperson with the Urban Ministry Center said most of the people left after a woman who used to watch over people’s belongings got housing.
MorningStar storage declined to go on-camera, but told Channel 9 they were working with CMPD and local resources to address concerns.
Officer Faulkenberry said some camps get so overcrowded that it becomes a code enforcement issue. He said several times a year, police, the city, and businesses team up to combat the problem. They give people at least two weeks’ notice, and then the area is cleaned up.
Officer Brad Hall said, “One of them in particular was off Davidson and the railroad tracks. It literally looked like a trash dump.”
Solid Waste Services is called to do most of the clean-ups. A spokesperson said they work with CMPD so an officer can be on-site during the process. They said each clean-up takes their crews about 45-50 minutes. It costs the city about $100. They said employees doing the work wear their normal protective gear: gloves, protective goggles, steel toe boots, and vests.
The clean-ups can mean donations from well-intentioned people that are often left behind in homeless camps get thrown away.
“We're not throwing away their valuables. We're throwing what’s left in the camp. We're throwing away old bags, sleeping bags, blankets, old food,” said Officer Faulkenberry.
Channel 9 asked Officer Faulkenberry if the camps stir up any health concerns. He said, “Certainly, we have to be careful about those types of diseases, TB, and hepatitis. Some of these camps, conditions are horrible.”
The Mecklenburg County Health Department Utilizes an HIV Outreach team to check on the homeless population each year. The team is assigned to test homeless people at various sites in the county.
Those test sites include: Grace Medical, John School, Lake Norman Comm. Health Clinic, Mercy Horizons, Moore Place, RAIN, Rebound, SABER at Urban Ministry, SACOT at Men's Shelter, Salvation Army, SAP at Men's Shelter, Statesville Men's Shelter, The Geo Group, Time Out Youth, Urban Ministry, and Walgreens Specialty Pharmacy.
Over the past three years, an average of 71 homeless people out of a pool of 580 tested positive for Hepatitis C. Fortunately, there have been no cases of Acute Hepatitis in the homeless population. Hepatitis A is the strain that has led to dangerous outbreaks in other major cities.
For reported Acute Hep C cases:
- 2015: 4 acute Hep C cases, none homeless
- 2016: 2 acute Hep C cases, none homeless
- 2017: 1 acute Hep C case, none homeless
The health department said data for 2018 is not available. Officials said there is no known outbreak of new cases in Mecklenburg County among any group. A spokesperson said, “In addition to offering Hep C Testing, the Outreach Team offers educational resources on Hep C as a means of preventing the spread of Hep C and to minimize the risk of an outbreak in the community.”
Over the past 3 years, there have been 15 confirmed cases of Hepatitis A in Mecklenburg County. That’s the strain linked to dangerous outbreaks in other major cities, like San Diego.
Police said they need more resources on the streets and affordable housing options to help the homeless population.
Officer Brad Hall said, “We need to find solutions to these problems that often fall back on the police to take care of.”
Earlier this month, police launched "Real Change Charlotte" as a way to help people on the streets. Their goal is to help people find long-term solutions. They want people to call 211 to help connect a homeless person to nonprofits, instead of handing over money or temporary resources. Through the effort, nonprofits will send trained counselors into the streets to speak with people in need and make sure they know how to get help, from housing to mental illness to addiction.
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