Feb 22, 2021 - Real Estate

Special report: The last days of “Tent City”

Tent City week of Friday, February 20, 2021

Photos: Travis Dove for Axios Charlotte

“Honey, where’s my Beckham jersey?” Kapone Williams asked his wife, Kelly, as they packed up their tents.

This was last Wednesday afternoon, almost 24 hours after the county health director ruled the north end encampment near Uptown a health hazard and ordered it shut down.

Kapone’s tent neighbors call him the “Mayor of Tent City,” because of his ability to keep the peace. He fell into homelessness in November 2019, and moved here shortly after the encampment formed in March.

A lot of his life is here now. He met Kelly here. Made some of his closest friends. Broke up fights. Made people laugh. Now all that time here just means he has more to move than others, and more memories to try to remember or forget.

The health director gave her 72-hour order at 5pm on Tuesday, so people had to be out by 5pm on Friday. To make that happen, the county offered each person 90 days in an undisclosed shelter motel, with three boxed meals a day. About 210 people, including Kapone and Kelly, took the offer.

They were allowed only two bags in the motel. But the Mayor of Tent City has friends with storage units for their belongings — sketchbooks for his drawings, shoes, jackets, and that Odell Beckham jersey. Kapone’s from New Jersey and a big New York Giants fan.

“Can’t leave here without that,” he said.

Tent City Friday, February 20, 2021
Kapone and Kelly load up the last of what they can take with them as they leave the encampment.

Three days later, just after the sun came up on Saturday, Bobcat tractors and backhoes began turning tent city into tilled land.

They filled about a half-dozen roll-off Dumpsters with tents, blankets, jeans, couches, trash. And toys.

Why it matters: “Tent City” put Charlotte’s affordable housing crisis in a place it couldn’t be ignored. For 11 months from March 2020 to February 2021, canopies were spread across a few city blocks, just outside the heart of the second-biggest banking center in the United States. 

Charlotte, we like to say, has a way of bulldozing its history. But we’re usually talking about buildings: a famous music studio or Masonic Temple or concert venue, demolished for the next skyscraper or apartment building.

Tent City Saturday, February 21, 2021
Heavy machinery scoops up the remnants of the encampment on Saturday.

Tent city’s various property owners are having it cleared and treated for pests. At least one owner’s indicated that they’d like to sell. Others will put up fences. In five years, this stretch of 12th Street will likely be full of taller buildings and cleaner sidewalks.

But those who lived here, and those who worked day and night to keep them fed and clothed, won’t soon forget the place they called home.

They fell in love here, and broke up here. They fed addictions here, and got clean here. They made friends here, and a few enemies here. They left trash here, and they planted flowers here.

Tent City Friday, February 20, 2021
A Bible sits in the zippered screen of a tent.

Clearing tent city may move homelessness out of sight, but homelessness isn’t gone.

The shelter motels aren’t permanent residences. Only a percentage will likely find permanent housing by the end of the 90 days. Most residents agreed that the location of the motels shouldn’t be made public. But they wondered if that would simply hide the problem again.

By the numbers: In December 2020, there were 3,052 people experiencing homelessness in the county. In December 2019, the number was 2,787.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Housing and Homelessness dashboard says the average person spends 460 days between losing housing and finding it. Last year at this time, it was 186 days.

tent city, Charlotte, July 2020
Photo by Travis Dove, July 2020
Tent City Saturday, February 21, 2021
Photo by Travis Dove, February 21, 2021

Photographer Travis Dove and I spent 10 days documenting the encampment in July. Some people we met then were still there last week in its final days, including Kapone and Kelly.

Also a man named David who calls himself King David. And a woman named Angelique who made the strongest coffee you’ve ever seen — she chews on a spoonful of coffee grounds then takes a swig of water and swirls it around and swallowed.

And Dee, who was the last person to leave the main field in front of the Morningstar storage facility on Saturday. Dee watched the Bobcats and the backhoes work all day Saturday, until his was the last tent standing and it was truly time to go.

Each person had a different story or reason for being there. There’s no single road into or out of homelessness. If you gave $1,000 to 1,000 different people here, they’d do 1,000 different things with it.

Last summer we met Bianca Cassidy, a college graduate with an extensive resume who’d found herself in a tent. She’s since found work, moved out, and is doing well. Back in July, she gave the clearest description of the challenges of helping the homeless population I’ve heard. She pointed to the game of checkers she was playing against her friend.

“If I move here, he’s going to jump me,” she said. “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.”

Tent City Friday, February 20, 2021
Victoria tries to stay warm on a night that dropped below freezing last week.

Consider the story of Kelly, Kapone’s wife.

Her first experience with homelessness didn’t start last year when she arrived at tent city. It started in the early 2000s, when she was laid off from her job at Pillowtex, which ran out of the old Cannon Mills factory in Kannapolis. She became an alcoholic after that, she said, and even since getting sober about a decade ago she hasn’t been able to find stable housing.

So yes, there are people who were laid off when the textile industry crashed and are still housing insecure. Same is true of the recession in 2008.

And if history holds, it’ll likely be true of the economic downturn from COVID-19.

Tent City Thursday, February 19, 2021
Jessica Lefkowitz, right, of Hearts for the Invisible Charlotte Coalition, hugs Kelly while her husband, Kapone (left), looks on.

One positive outcome from the encampment: Charlotte has plenty of people working on homelessness now.

The county is providing wraparound services upon entry into the shelter motels. They’ll have access to addiction counselors and other resources, if they want them. And they’ll have access to a network of nonprofits that’s grown.

Those nonprofits are the heroes of this story, any person who lived at tent city will tell you. They include Deborah Woolard of Block Love CLT, Jessica Lefkowitz and Kenya Joseph of Hearts for the Invisible, Roof Above, Hearts Beat as One, and many others.

“They should do something real special for them,” Kapone says.

In the 72 hours after the health director’s order last week, they were the ones to handle the outreach with the residents. The county and city governments didn’t have relationships with the people who lived here, but the nonprofits did. They spoke to each person, explained the situation, and got them to take the offer.

As of Saturday evening, only two members of the encampment were holdouts, and they eventually moved, too. Nobody was arrested, Roof Above CEO Liz Clasen-Kelly said in a post Sunday night.

Lefkowitz took care of dozens of people herself. She was a bartender at the Westin at this time last year. After getting laid off early in the pandemic, she came down to the encampment to help. Three months later, she co-founded Hearts for the Invisible.

I saw her at dusk on Saturday evening, driving a U-haul van from one campsite to the next, hoping to gather the last of the things people found important.

Tent City week of Thursday, February 19, 2021
Tent City, Thursday February 18, 2021

At about 4pm on Friday, one hour before the camp closed, a man named Jimmy was sitting near the light-rail line scanning the abandoned village.

Jimmy is experiencing homelessness, too. He lives off of Milton Road, though. “Nice quiet spot,” he said. When he thinks about how the people of tent city stayed here in the muck and the mess, from the thunderstorms of the summer to the freezing rain of winter, and how they’ve all been offered at least a roof and running water for 90 days, he chuckles.

“They did it,” he said. “They held out long enough.”

At 4:30, just a half-hour to go before the deadline, Kapone and Kelly were standing behind the last of their belongings — three green tubs, two clear plastic tubs, and a duffel bag.

They were waiting for their friend to pick up the things for storage, and to take them to the motel shelter.

People came by to say farewell. An F-150 pulled up and out hopped Jeff Greene, who’s been here since March delivering water and ice when it’s warm, coffee and hot chocolate when it’s cold.

Jeff experienced homelessness 22 years ago but made it out. When the encampment formed, he and his church, CN Jenkins Memorial Presbyterian, figured the least they could do was offer hot and cold drinks.

He poured at least 100 cups of Swiss Miss hot milk chocolate on Friday. His last one was for Kapone.

“Cocoa man!” Kapone called him.

Just then a man named Omar came by and showed Kapone an electric heater he’d been given. Kapone gave him a couple of packs of crackers. As Omar walked away, he hollered back down the street, “Add me on Facebook!”

If not for the immediate needs of the people here, the final 72 hours of tent city had the feel of college move-out days.

Tent City, Thursday February 18, 2021

At 5pm Kapone and Kelly were still waiting, and getting nervous.

“Where is she?” Kelly said, hopping up and down.

Kapone looked up at a news chopper in the sky and waved.

Another volunteer pulled up at 6pm, not the friend they expected but the friend they needed. She could get them a storage unit, too. Without a thought, they loaded their belongings in her SUV.

Kapone needed help arranging the car so I moved one of the tubs. While we were under the cover of the hatchback, he whispered to me, “Watch, she’s gonna find more stuff to take. You watch.”

“What’d you say?” Kelly said.

“I said, I love you, baby,” he said.

They laughed.

Then, just when they had it almost full, Kelly handed him two more bags. Two Coleman three-person tents, unopened.

“Keep these,” she said. “You never know.”

Tent City week of Friday, February 20, 2021

All photos by Travis Dove.

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