Jul 16, 2020 - News

Special report: 10 days in tent city with the ‘new faces’ of homelessness in Charlotte

Tent City Covid 2020

Tent City Covid 2020

Past the tent where Cosmo makes paintings, past the tent where Angelique chews on a spoonful of coffee grounds in the morning, around the corner where Michael sings a song he wrote about the world on fire, past Ronald the Desert Storm vet and Kapone the peacekeeper and Jay from Lumberton, a middle-aged woman calmly plots her next move on a checkers board.

She plays here each night against her friend, out on the edge of tent city.

She’s a college graduate, dressed in pants and a clean top, as if she’s on her way to work in a skyscraper. But she lives here, too, in an orange and gray tent with a lily plant out front.

If you’ve driven on the connector stretch of College and Tryon streets at any point this past month, you might’ve passed them in the middle of a game, this woman and this man. He’s an out-of-work construction guy with cutoff sleeves and a single Kool cigarette in the mesh cupholder of his camping chair. They’re not an item, not a couple, just friends. Neighbors. He came to tent city first, back in March, and when she arrived three days later, he helped her set up next to him, right under the popping-pink crape myrtles.

He looks after her, and she makes him think.

His name is Mustafa. He’s moved back and forth between New Jersey and Charlotte for the past 20 or so years. She’d rather her name not be used in this story, but she wants to talk about life here.* Wants people to know what’s happening. But she’s a Charlotte native and still trying to figure out how, at 50, she became homeless in her hometown.

“Homelessness has a new definition and new faces,” she tells me. “People see me and look at me and say, I wonder why she’s out here. And I tell them, it’s personal. But the definition of a homeless person in Charlotte is changing.”

Tent City Covid 2020
At the corner of 12th and College, a man who goes by Cosmo works on a Black Lives Matter sign.

When I met the checkers players last week, their tent homes were two of nearly 150 that make up the largest-ever tent community to congregate in Charlotte. It swells and shrinks each day, but it hasn’t been below 100 in months.

It’s hard to miss, on College and 12th streets, in the apron of the skyscrapers just outside of Uptown. It’s not new to have people experiencing homelessness in Charlotte. But until now most have rested in wooded areas and other places in the margins.

What’s different now is Covid-19, and a Centers for Disease Control recommendation that camps be kept intact and not dispersed during the pandemic. Also different is that the Charlotte region shed 70,000 or so jobs in March and April. Libraries are closed. Restaurants are limited. And family members and friends who might usually act as a last resort for housing support have their own stresses and worries.

People need a place to plug in. The Urban Ministry Center — which recently merged with the Men’s Shelter under the name Roof Above — is open for a half-day each day. Here, people can do laundry, connect to WiFi, and be close to services. Roof Above has worked with property owners and CMPD to ensure that tent city isn’t shut down.

“If this were happening during non-pandemic times you’d see this be cleared (by police),” Roof Above CEO Liz Clasen-Kelly says of the tent city. “It has made homelessness so visible. People cognitively knew we had homelessness, but they’re seeing it in a new way, because of the compact nature of this, the congregate nature. It’s usually very spread out.”

What’s also different this time is the consensus that it’s only the beginning.

The state implemented an eviction moratorium through the end of June that kept many people in their apartments even if they couldn’t afford the rent.

Now, although that moratorium has lifted, courts aren’t yet hearing eviction cases in Mecklenburg County. And landlords who own properties that are federally subsidized or have a federally backed mortgages can’t schedule lockouts to force an eviction judgment until after August 24.

With the loss of jobs and the rent coming due, it’s reasonable to assume that hundreds more people are on the brink of being unsheltered in the city.

Numbers only hint at coming pain. In November, Charlotte had about 429 people considered “chronically homeless,” meaning they’ve been unsheltered for more than a year. In April that number was 545.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Housing and Homelessness dashboard shows the most recent “one number” count — a count of people who’ve used homeless services in the past 90 days — was 3,172. That’s a slight decrease from the January peak, but it’s still a jump from the 2,106 from June of last year.

Charlotte has lots of things on its mind now, from schools reopening to justice for Black lives to a rising homicide rate. But housing remains number one. With a home, it’s possible to confront the other struggles. Without one, those become distant concerns, falling somewhere behind clean water and ice on 95-degree day.

“You got any juice?” one woman asks a volunteer who’s handing out ice.

“No, baby, just fruit,” the volunteer says.

“I’ll take it,” the woman says.

Photographer Travis Dove and I spent much of the past 10 days in tent city. Most people didn’t want their names used or faces in photos, so we’ve agreed only to print nicknames of people whose backgrounds we could verify. And Travis arranged for long-exposure portraits that blurred out identities.

Each tent has a story inside, and most just want someone to listen to it. Conversations can last all night. Theories about life and homelessness and Charlotte housing pour out of the people under the heel of the crisis.

The woman on the checkers board is brilliant. She’s a writer. We talked for a few minutes the first day, and for nearly an hour a few days later. By the middle of last week she has good news to share — she received a job offer doing some community work. Her first day will be Monday, the 13th, she tells me on the day she learned the good news. She spends Thursday making sure she had a bus pass secured, and starts to map out her route.

That night, I sit down in a chair across from her while Mustafa goes off to meet a volunteer who’s dropping off supply bags. She shares her insights into tent city, says that the city should not even consider breaking it up. “That’s not a solution,” she says. “Because people will just move.”

When she moves, though, she says she’s not coming back. She’s seen countless people go live in a motel for a week, only to return. She points to the checkers board to explain.

“If I move here, he’s going to jump me,” she says. “So before we make this move, we say what are his next two moves? If he goes back to the hotel for a week, he’s just going to go right back to the tent. You have to think two or three moves ahead when you take them off the street.”

It’s the clearest explanation of housing assistance I’ve heard.

Mustafa leans back in his chair and smiles.

“See why I hang out with her?” he says. “She makes me smarter.”

Tent City Covid 2020
Many residents of the homeless encampment didn’t want their faces shown, so photographer Travis Dove did a series of long-exposure shots of them. They became popular among the people who live here.
Tent City Covid 2020

Anthony hands me a resume. It’s two pages long, front and back. It’s Monday, July 6, and we’re outside the Urban Ministry Center. Anthony’s spent the past two weeks in an extended-stay motel, thanks to assistance from a nonprofit organization, Hearts and Hands Food Pantry. He comes here — to “The Urb,” as the locals call it — to do his laundry, retrieve his mail.

Before that, Anthony lived two months in tent city.

He’s a machine operator who works at a distribution center in west Charlotte, moving boxes. The company allows him to work 36 hours a week, and he’s a diabetic who wants something full-time with benefits. He has another interview lined at a company that will pay him less per hour, but will give him 40 or more each week.

Anthony grew up in New York and most of his support system is there. But he has two sons, 12 and 4, living with their mother in Rockingham. He dreams about a life where he has a decent job and a piece of land out near Monroe, so that he can be 45 minutes from his boys and 45 minutes from work.

Two years ago, he had something like that. He lived in a modular home just outside of Bennettsville, South Carolina, about 90 miles east of Charlotte. He had a used BMW parked in the driveway. Then in 2018, Hurricane Florence parked over the eastern half of the Carolinas for two days, three days, forever, pouring nearly 20 inches of rain on Bennettsville. Up came the Pee Dee River, over its banks and inside the BMW and the house.

Anthony became a Florence refugee. He went back to New York for more than a year to recalibrate, but missed his sons. He moved to Charlotte last summer, figuring there was more work here than anywhere else. A couple of bad roommate situations later, he was in a shelter.

Then he went to Room in the Inn, a program put on by Roof Above that partners with local churches to keep people sheltered in colder months. In March, the Room in the Inn program shut down because of the coronavirus. Anthony wound up in a gray and blue tent outside “The Urb.”

Then along came a miracle, or something like it. A woman named Kenya Joseph from Heart and Hands approached his tent handing out meals. Kenya’s among a core group of people who’ve been here to help nearly every day since March.

Kenya’s from New York, too. They struck up a conversation. He handed her a resume. She told him she wanted her organization to pay for a motel room for him, just for a short stretch, to help him find a job that might help him find a path out.

On the Monday we meet, Anthony is on his way to another job interview. That Tuesday, Kenya re-ups his motel room for another week. On Wednesday, he sends me a screenshot with a job offer.

“Kenya made this possible with room internet,” he writes.

Tent City Covid 2020
Kenya Joseph, a volunteer with Hearts and Hands Food Pantry, gives out ice.

Tent city has been a wake-up call to many, in the way that the brutal murder of George Floyd awakened people to police violence against Black people. But those who live it don’t need to see the videos, don’t need to see the tents.

Kenya’s group is one of several who show up here on a daily basis. Another is Block Love CLT, run by a woman named Deborah Woolard, who’s all over the city all the time. Few people have given out more meals in Charlotte than Deborah has out of the back of her Chevy Ridgeline.

Another organization that’s housing people is Revamp, a new nonprofit started by a young man named Leslie Hunter, who spent his teen years in and out of homeless shelters in Charlotte and Michigan. Now his goal is to end tent city by finding people housing.

Individuals not attached to nonprofits are here, too. Jessica Lefkowitz was a bartender at the Westin in Uptown before the pandemic fallout sent her in the unemployment line. One day not long after losing her job she saw a post on Facebook about tent city. She visited once, and has been coming back just about every day since. She helps coordinate and gather tents, bug spray, water, anything people need.

Jessica Lefkowitz Tent City Covid
Jessica Lefkowitz has been helping at tent city for three months, back to when only a few tents were outside.

Kenya and Jessica and Deborah are like celebrities. When they show up, the residents swarm. But their faces tell the story of their exhaustion.

Kenya can’t understand why relief funds have millions in the bank but still people are out here. She moved to Charlotte seven years ago. In the past three months she says she’s watched some passersby dump clothes out the window. Others drive by with their phones pointed out the window to take videos. Other organizations show up, she says, and spend more time taking selfies in the field for their Facebook pages than they do actually offering assistance.

“We have people in Charlotte who think this is a game,” she says. “I’ve been all over the world. I’ve never seen a more disconnected city than here.”

Deborah Woolard has similar questions. She helps CMPD with domestic abuse cases. She’s seen it growing here, too. She says 14 women are pregnant at tent city. Three or four new people show up each week from jail, she says, released without being tested for Covid-19.

It’s one of her biggest concerns, an outsider bringing the virus here. She pleads with all new volunteers to wear their masks. All of her volunteers get tested first. “You’re more likely to make our block family sick than they are to make you sick,” she says.

She’s been here for 131 straight days, and each one brings something new, she says. But as she’s watched new nonprofits come in, lots of big hearts show up, a bigger question has come to her, similar to the way it has Kenya Joseph.

“What is the plan?” Deborah asks.

The regular volunteers know this has been bubbling for months, years, and that Covid-19’s only about to blow the top off, unless someone comes up with a major intervention.

Deborah serves camps off of Statesville Road and up toward Huntersville. And there’s one a short walk from the main city. A suburb, of sorts. It’s up the hill on 12th.

There we meet a woman named Teresa. She’d left an abusive relationship last year, she says. She went to the YWCA off Park Road for several months. Soon she met another man, and they became a couple. She lives here now with him, up on the hill. He’s been homeless for 10 years, she says, but the most important thing to her is that they never fight, never argue.

The same can’t be said for everyone, though. One night last weekend Teresa says she woke up to hear screaming. A woman was inside another tent being abused. The beating left the woman with cuts on her face, and the man in handcuffs. Teresa shakes her head when she tells the story.

She spends her time thinking about that and writing now.

“For some, it’s a tragic end. For some, just a stop between,” one of her letters starts. “For some, the only belongings they have are what they can fit in their tents. But one can tell by the way they rearrange and fuss over them that they are their treasures — even though they were retrieved from a trash bin. Drugs seem to be the major contender here — that and loneliness.”

Letter on homeless Tent City at
Letter on homelessness, written by a resident of tent city.

Housing people isn’t just about doing good. It saves money.

A 2016 Charlotte magazine story cited a UNC Charlotte study that found that residents of Moore Place, built in 2012 for the chronically homeless, decreased their hospital bills by 70 percent, or $1.8 million, after living there a year. Those same residents also saw a 78 percent reduction in arrests, the story says.

Roof Above recently received a $353,859 grant from the Covid Relief Fund, which is run by the Foundation For the Carolinas and United Way. That money is set aside to help staff and open a new shelter. Roof Above did open a shelter in an unspecified motel earlier this month. But it also had to close its Statesville Avenue shelter because the open setting was a place where the virus could spread.

On Tuesday this week, the Duke Energy Foundation announced it would give $500,000 to Roof Above to help provide housing solutions. The foundation challenged others to do the same.

One of Charlotte’s most noteworthy traits, and sometimes one of its worst crutches, is that it’s a giving city with lots of philanthropists.

The city we enjoy today was built on the philanthropic efforts of its best business leaders in the 1980s and 1990s. CEOs had most of the power here in the late 20th century, and government usually made way for them. It worked nicely for growth and for the health of the nonprofit sector. The FFTC is one of the largest community foundations in the country now, with more than $2.5 billion in assets. When it partnered with United Way to create the relief fund in the spring, nearly $20 million arrived in a blink.

But no city can give its way out of a pandemic. Philanthropy needs a government counterpart.

Clasen-Kelly, the Roof Above CEO, points to cities such as Denver, where the mayor recently called for sanctioned campsites for people experiencing homelessness, and proposed a quarter-cent sales tax hike to boost city services.

“The solution for housing doesn’t best rest with the Foundation For the Carolinas and nonprofits,” Clasen-Kelly says. “There are really clear public policy decisions we have to make as a nation, as a state, and as a city and county. Absolutely nonprofits and foundations can be part of that. But we can’t be sole providers.”

In Charlotte, most public funding for homelessness comes through the county budget. However, the city of Charlotte, with its $50 million housing trust fund, leads the way on affordable housing projects. It can be confusing and create disconnects, even for those who work in the field and in government.

I call Pat Cotham, a Mecklenburg County commissioner who regularly helps with homeless counts and meals. She’s given a few tents to tent city. When I ask about homelessness, she’s blunt, as usual.

“First of all, let’s call them homeless neighbors,” she says.

And then she goes on.

“There really isn’t a commitment to solving this,” she says. “We need to have one person who’s the homeless guru, because we spend millions of dollars on homelessness, and the city does as well and yet the problem continues. We have made little progress.

“If I’m a county commissioner who’s most interested in homelessness, and I can’t tell you where to go, that’s a problem.”

Tent City Covid
On the outskirts of tent city.

Go back for a minute, to those words Teresa wrote:

“That and loneliness.”

I’ve lingered with them this week.

In my time reporting on Charlotte’s mobility gap over the past six years, I’ve come to believe that people should give however they choose and can, and however they feel comfortable, without pressure or criticism. If it’s money, great. If it’s food, great. Several folks wanted to grill out for the people of tent city this week. Great.

But what I gathered from tent city this week is that people who live here, more than anything else, want someone to talk to, and someone to listen.

Jay from Lumberton was a truck driver. He worked throughout eastern North Carolina. But one night in 2015 he got a DWI in Elizabethtown in Bladen County and lost his commercial driver’s license.

“That was pretty much what started all this,” Jay says. “Ain’t been back able to get back since.”

Then there’s Angelique. She makes the hardest coffee in Charlotte, and there’s no debating it. Each morning she scoops grounds out of the can into her mouth, then takes a swig of water and mixes it around. Like many of the women out here, she’s paired up with someone. Her tentmate, Dee, tells me last Wednesday that Angelique is the “Mother Teresa” of tent city. That she’s the most kind and giving person out here. But something happens and over the weekend they fight and split up.

Then there’s Dennis and Betty, a Black man and a white woman up on the hill near the light rail line. They’ve been together for 18 months. He’s from Charleston and she’s from Gastonia. Dennis, who’s 46, lost his dishwashing job at a local bakery and coffee shop in January because, he says, the manager said he worked too slow. He and Betty have their routines. She’ll shave his head in the morning. In the afternoon they’ll walk down to the park with empty jugs, fill them up with water, and bring them back to bathe behind the tent.

They try to stay out of the way of the other residents. Their tent is on the outskirts of tent city, closer to the light rail tracks. If you’ve taken the train out of uptown toward University, you’ve probably seen it. It’s the one with the American flag draped on it.

“That flag,” says Dennis, “reminds me that we’re in one of the greatest countries in the world.”

Tent City 2020 Covid

On Saturday evening, a black Escalade pulls up in front of the tent with the lily plant.

Several organizations have noticed the woman who lives here, the Charlotte native with the college degree and a job to start on Monday, and now a family wants to offer her a guest room. Suddenly, she is packing up. The lily will come with her. Same with all of her books and her Bible. Everything. In the wood pallets underneath her tents, critters with tails sense a big change and scatter.

When she’s gone, Mustafa looks at the empty tent that has been occupied by his checkers competitor. He slides it into his spot. On Monday morning when I stop by, he’s in his tent eating a small breakfast. I ask him if he’s okay without her.

“It’s only been a day,” he says. “I guess so.”

He asks me to bring him something to read the next time I come back, if I wouldn’t mind. Just something to pass the time until he can find some work. Mowing lawns. Cleaning out houses. He’s up for anything. Each day he hopes for a knock on his tent to tell him that someone’s called the Urb looking for a worker, and he’ll go.

I bring him a copy of the Sunday New York Times, now a day old, a copy of the book written by my friend Tommy Tomlinson. Mustafa reads the back cover. The book’s title is The Elephant in the Room. It’s a memoir about a man’s lifelong battle with weight. But in so many ways, the struggle is familiar in the rhythm of tent city. Pounds go off, pounds go on. Tents go down, tents go up.

“Thank you,” Mustafa says, and he’s still reading it the next time I come by.

That same afternoon, Tuesday the 14th, I find Anthony. He’s the man who lost his home to Hurricane Florence, who walks around with his rather impressive resume, who’s spent the past three weeks in a motel paid for by Hearts and Hands Food Pantry.

Anthony has that new job lined up. He still has that dream of a piece of land and a modular home in Monroe. He’s one of the most motivated people we’ve met in the 10 days in tent city, by a long shot. He’s taken his drug test for the new job. He knows he’ll pass. But he still has to wait for the results and a start date.

One of the only constants at tent city is that tomorrow is a totally different day, for better or worse. Friends one night can be enemies the next morning. Gentle people in the week can become violent on the weekends. CMPD has recorded 24 incidents around the Urban Ministry Center since March 16. Half of those are for assault of some kind — nine simple assault, three for aggravated assault.

On Monday, I’d seen Anthony and he was fired up about life. But Tuesday morning, he’d learned two pieces of bad news — he didn’t make it into the Men’s Shelter, and Kenya’s organization can no longer pay for his motel room. She can buy him a new tent. He understands that.

“They’ve paid for three weeks. I’m very grateful,” he says. And then he insists: “Please make the story about her and her organization and tell people how good they are.”

His new job will involve 12-hour overnight shifts. So he’ll need to sleep during the days. Nobody at tent city can sleep during the days. Not only because of the commotion, but the heat. With the sun beating down on a tent, a 90-degree day can become a hundred-degree oven.

Late Tuesday evening, Anthony’s sitting behind his tent with the air mattress, the butt of a cigarette pinched between his fingers. Still grateful, he says. But stressed. All around him the residents of tent city are ready for another night. Some are drinking. Some are grilling. Jessica drops off food at the table. Salads tonight. Anthony says he’s not in the mood to eat. Other people grab their food first.

“I feel like I’m the only one, now that I’m back, that’s trying to do something positive,” he says. “That’s draining. If you’re in a circle and you’re the only positive person in that circle, and everybody else is negative, in tends to wear you down.”

He stares at the new tent, then points to the one next to it.

“That used to be my old tent,” he says. “I gave it away to somebody. And now I’m next door with a new one.”

Tent City Covid 2020 long exposure
Tent City Covid 2020
Tent City Covid 2020

Update on July 27: Several groups mentioned in this story banded together shortly after this story ran to become the Hearts for the Invisible Charlotte Coalition. They’ve created a list of requests from local government. First and foremost, they wanted to bring attention to the possibility that tent city would be removed. Several news outlets covered the possible shutdown over the weekend. On Monday, CMPD told me that the owners of the property at 12th and College and 12th and Graham had informed police that they will “currently refrain” from asking the occupants to leave.

*Note: For the privacy of the people interviewed, we used their preferred names, as they requested. We did gather their full names, though, to verify they were who they said they were. For those who show up most often — Mustafa, Anthony, and the woman with the lily plant — we ran full background checks to verify that their residential histories matched what they told us in person.

Join us: This coverage is made possible and free to all (no paywall) with the help of Agenda Members. If you’d like to support more reporting like this, become an Agenda Member.


Get more local stories in your inbox with Axios Charlotte.


Support local journalism by becoming a member.

Learn more

More Charlotte stories


Get a free daily digest of the most important news in your backyard with Axios Charlotte.


Support local journalism by becoming a member.

Learn more