Our homeless problem is not just a housing issue; it’s a systemic issue

It is not accidental that most – not all -- of Charlotte's homeless residents are people of color.

Jennifer Watson Roberts is a former Charlotte mayor and former member of the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners. Read more of her opinion articles here.


It was disheartening to read QCity Metro’s latest piece about the County moving “residents” of Tent City to hotels because of the unhealthy conditions in the area. In the interviews of the county and city officials, I did not hear compassion, regret, or responsibility for these conditions. Instead, there has been a lot of finger pointing and excuses filling the airwaves. What is missing is basic care and concern for the human suffering that we are now witnessing. 

I was on the County Commission when thousands of evacuees from Hurricane Katrina came flooding into our airport and our community.  I remember the famous attempt by then-Mayor Pat McCrory to limit the number we could take in to 400. Well, in the end we took in over 4,000. Our neighbor to the south – Columbia SC – took in about 15,000.  I know these numbers because I talk about them in my work on climate change. They demonstrate the broad reach of climate impacts, because even cities that are not directly in the path of storms end up feeling strain and having to prepare resources for those who are flooded out and displaced.  It is our moral obligation, our human duty, to care about our neighbors, to pool resources and pitch in, in the same way we lend firefighters and medical resources to neighboring counties in need. Our first responders are heroes in so many ways.

But the care for our neighbors who are here already – and who may suffer from medical conditions and lack of access to healthcare, or from domestic violence, or from job loss and eviction – is somehow not the same. I know we are better than this.  For the Katrina evacuees, our city and county stepped up, and co-located services in the old Hornets’ arena on Tyvola so that the homeless evacuees could access them all at one time, in one place. Those who had no cell phones, no laptops, could walk from table to table and sign up for housing assistance, food stamps, disability if needed, job interviews and training programs. It was beautifully coordinated and put together with rapid efficiency. We could do something similar now.

Our struggles in Charlotte and Mecklenburg with affordable housing are not new.  The numbers of people experiencing homelessness has been unacceptable for years, and many good efforts have been made to help.  One way I helped as a commissioner was raising money for and supporting the construction of a larger shelter for survivors of domestic violence, which more than tripled capacity and helped many families get back on their feet. And there have been other steps forward, with the development of Moore Place, the new hotel purchased by Roof Above, the recent dedication of Center City Partners to the issue, and more.

I am by no means saying nothing is being done.  And I know all the good folks personally who are trying to solve this crisis, from our sheriff to our police chief, the city and county managers, and elected officials.  They all struggle with trying to solve a complex, multi-layered issue, one that is confronting cities across America. And they do really care, despite a tendency to squabble over responsibilities.

[Also read: County health officials say homeless residents must be evicted from ‘Tent City’]

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Yes, it is time for more permanent solutions, and cities around the country are showing the innovation it takes. Minneapolis eliminated single family zoning all together, making it easier to build multi-family housing that can add to the housing options more quickly. Denver adopted an ADU (Accessory Dwelling Unit) policy that cut construction costs in half and streamlined permitting so people could build small “granny apartments” on their property. ADU’s bring rental income to those who want to stay in their homes amidst escalating housing costs, and add lower cost housing to the market. Then there are pre-fab structures, tiny homes, even 3-D printed housing (!) that can add variety of cost and size quickly. And, though this would take legislation in North Carolina, many cities require that as much as 20% of units be affordable for any new multi-family complex.

But this is not just a housing issue.  This is a systemic issue, and much of it connects with systemic racism. It is not accidental that most – not all — of the homeless residents are people of color. Our society has closed too many doors on people of color for too many years for us to be able to change that overnight. We need better access and more equal treatment in healthcare for people of color.  We need better schools and job training opportunities.  We need healthier neighborhoods, with trees and green spaces, and more sustainable housing with solar panels and energy efficiencies that reduce the utility burden for homeowners and renters. We also need to decrease the wage gap in our businesses and corporations.

We spend a lot of time talking about housing but not talking about the wages needed to pay for housing. In the 1960s the average CEO earned about 40 times what their lowest-paid employees earned. Today it is over 400 times. As Millard Fuller, the founder of Habitat for Humanity once famously said, “there is enough for everyone’s need. There is not enough for everyone’s greed.” We know that African Americans and Latinos earn much less than their white counterparts, and for women of color, the disparity is the worst. And economists will tell you that if wages had kept pace with productivity and inflation, the minimum wage would now be $24 an hour.

As part of the atonement and repair for profiting from years of segregation, redlining, wage disparities, and racism in our criminal justice system, companies could change their salary policies – even just a little would make a huge difference. Some would call this a radical idea. I would call it justice, fairness, and leadership.

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4 Comments

This article has 4 comments.

  1. So tired of hearing you leftist connect everything to racism. Grow up and face the truths. Ok yo provide housing to the less fortunate but why constantly say it’s all about racism. I call bullshit.

  2. Thank you Jennifer Roberts for writing that this a systemic racism issue and that we need a living wage. A CEO that makes 20 million plus is making 645 times what the lowest paid worker earning $15 an hour makes($31,200). That CEO could make 40 times and still live comfortably with a salary of $1,248,000. The remaining 18 million can then be used to have all employees start at $24 an hour, with earnings of close to $50,000 a year.

  3. Thank you, Mayor Roberts , for spelling out specific ways to address the housing crisis in Charlotte and in America. Your compassion linked with practicality give me hope that things can get done. We now have a President who also has a heart for the suffering of people and who wants to make life better for all of us. Raising wages, improving schools, and making decent housing available to people all around the city are what we need. Thank you

  4. Thank you, former Mayor Roberts, for your compassionate, practical, historically-based perspectives on housing in our city. Anyone who fails to see the connection between poverty, homelessness and racism is either intentionally ignorant to these facts or is just not paying attention. I applaud the notion of dismantling single family ordinances and would also encourage legislation summarily dismantling restrictive covenants for extinct communities. These arcane and uncoordinated strictures on housing from a bygone era, no longer address the present-day realities of a growing and diverse community. John Maxwell’s “Law of the Price Tag” states: “The Team fails its Potential when it Fails to Pay the Price.”

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