City Council approval not needed to remove homeless people from airport

CHARLOTTE — A spokesperson for Charlotte Douglas International Airport says Charlotte City Council approval is not needed for the airport to put a new rule restricting access to people experiencing homelessness.

The rule was first floated by Aviation Director Haley Gentry during a meeting Monday night.

“The aviation director has the legal authority to set policies, procedures, and rules and regulations related to the operation of the airport under Chapter 4 of the City Ordinances,” a spokesperson for Charlotte Douglas International Airport said. “This policy may be implemented under that authority and will be developed in partnership with (the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department).”

Airport officials think the new construction is partly to blame for the uptick. The new construction has increased the square footage of the airport and created more space for people, Gentry said.

Channel 9 has been looking into the homelessness issue at Charlotte Douglas since January and has spoken to multiple people calling the airport home.

For most people, baggage claim is the last stop before going home. For Frederick and Elaina, it is home.

“As long as you aren’t causing any problems or harassing anybody, you are pretty much alright,” Elaina said.

They say they are two of as many as 30 people on any given night living inside Charlotte Douglas.

They have until June when the airport plans to put new rules in place that will give police more power to remove people experiencing homelessness.

“Safety and security are our No. 1 priority at the airport and we always approach these situations with that in mind,” Gentry said.

The county is paying a nonprofit, Hearts for Invisible Charlotte, $650,000 in COVID-19 funds to serve people living in places not intended for residency, which includes the airport.

Founder Jessica Lefkowitz told Channel 9 in January her nonprofit has helped at least 12 people experiencing homelessness at the airport find shelter or housing.

“Twelve doesn’t seem like a large number, but it actually is,” she said. “I think definitely because it’s bathrooms and because it’s heated. Having access to heat and bathrooms is significant when you’re experiencing unsheltered homelessness.”

This is a challenge being faced by cities across the country.

In February, Atlanta City Council passed an ordinance that restricts who is allowed to come and go inside the airport. The ordinance says only people on official business at the airport are allowed to loiter, including travelers, workers, and people picking up or dropping off.

That’s essentially what Charlotte’s aviation director is proposing.

“If you are not at the airport for business, if you are not there working, if you are not there traveling, then you cannot be at the airport,” Gentry said.

Charlotte City Councilman Tariq Bokhari says the city needs to get serious about addressing homelessness, whether someone is on the street or a rocking chair in the airport terminal.

“There’s really, in my mind, no difference between that and what happens on Park and Fairview,” he said. “It’s truly out of control and everyone’s hands seem to be tied.”

Mecklenburg County Commissioner Pat Cotham frequently volunteers and serves the homeless. She says the city and county need to address the issue with compassion.

“I’m always for treating them as individuals and not as a group,” she said. “If they’re trying to just get them removed, I struggle with that.

Frederick and Elaina say they understand the airport’s situation and hope this spurs a larger discussion.

“If they are going to find rules to prevent them, homeless people are going to find somewhere to go,” Frederick said.

Frederick and Elaina say they consider the airport to be the safest place for them to be since there is security, access to bathrooms, and charging ports. They also say airport workers frequently donate food to the people living there.

VIDEO: Charlotte airport wants police to be able to remove people experiencing homelessness