More than 180 people living in a homeless encampment near uptown Charlotte have accepted Mecklenburg County’s offer of temporarily shelter in hotel rooms, County Manager Dena Diorio told reporters Thursday.
On Tuesday, County health officials had ordered the encampment, dubbed “Tent City,” closed within 72 hours, citing a rodent infestation and worsening air quality caused by cooking fires.
With less than 36 hours left before that deadline was reached, the county began Covid-19 testing and moving encampment residents to hotels, Mecklenburg Health Director Gibbie Harris said.
Karen Pelletier, a county official who works in community support services, said she was getting minute-by-minute updates and that county workers were helping to assist the homeless residents as they were being relocated.
“We have staff at the hotel and we’re ready to receive people,” Pelletier said.
Diorio and Harris said the encampment was neither safe nor healthy because of rodents, risk of disease, uncontrolled use of poison to kill the rats, and several uncontrolled burns. The property owners, which include the City of Charlotte, have agreed to clean the area and eradicate the rats at their expense once the tents are gone.
‘A community problem’
Diorio said moving the encampment residents was made more difficult because the city failed to provide drivers for Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS) buses that City Manager Marcus Jones had pledged to the effort. Diorio said she and Jones also had discussed using firefighters to drive the buses, but that plan fell through when the firefighters wanted security on the buses, which the county could not provide.
“When I make a commitment to somebody to do something, I do it,” Diorio said. “So when he [Jones] said it would be taken care of, there was no other planning on my part that was necessary. So if you see Mecklenburg County employees in small buses transporting four people at a time to the hotels, which is neither efficient nor compassionate, you will know why. This is a community problem.”
Later on Thursday, the city released a statement offering its own explanation, alleging that the county had given the city little notice before ordering the encampment closed.
“On Wednesday, we committed to supporting the County and were asked to help by providing transportation,” the city’s statement said. “We had committed to providing buses to help transport the residents of the encampment to hotels and shelters. The County was aware of that commitment on Wednesday, and we were discussing with them the logistics and their needs.”
“As of Wednesday night, we were trying to determine how to best meet the transportation needs and the County informed us they no longer needed our support for transportation. We never said we would not support the County but were asking for critical details to understand the scope of their need and the County was unable to provide those details and it was the County who withdrew their request for buses. The City never refused to help and we did not back away from our commitment to provide transportation.”
No law enforcement?
Diorio said the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department (CMPD) and the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office also provided no assistance in clearing the encampment.
In the city’s statement, the city said police officers were not involved in the operation because “the people in the encampments are not criminals.”
On Twitter, CMPD Chief Johnny Jennings gave his own account of what happened.
“Mecklenburg County did not involve CMPD in any conversations about this order,” he said. “This order is a civil order, and as such, the civil order does not allow for any criminal law enforcement responses at this time.”
If any residents remain in the encampment beyond the county’s deadline — at 5 p.m. Friday — “CMPD will work with the county regarding enforcement of potential criminal violations,” Jennings said.
Mecklenburg Sheriff Garry L. McFadden issued a statement saying that, because of “limited details and logistics,” he declined to make deputies available to drive buses or provide security.
The Charlotte Fire Department (CFD) also released a statement, saying it received little notice of the county’s plan to close the encampment. The statement said CFD was willing to assist the county, but only if security was present on the buses, which the statement said is a standard practice when CFD works for the county.
Providing stability and housing
Meanwhile, the county will work with landlords and social service providers to help those moved from the encampment to find long-term stability, Pelletier said.
“This is an opportunity for me to really make a plea to our landlords in the community to really step up and come forward and really help us find housing opportunities for these folks who have been living in the encampment site and who are now residing at these hotels,” Diorio said.
After meeting with grassroot organizations and Roof Above, Pelletier said the county anticipates that no more than 200 people from the encampment will be moved to hotels.
Diorio said she had met with George Dunlap, who chairs the Mecklenburg board of commissioners, and several members of Charlotte City Council to discuss forming a group that would work to resolve the encampment issue. Those discussions were halted, she said, once county health officials ordered the encampment closed.