Should Charlotte create 'safe lots' where homeless families can sleep in their cars?

Should Charlotte create 'safe lots' where homeless families can sleep in their cars?
Benches on North Tryon are part of the homeless population's turf due to the lack of affordable housing. (The Charlotte Observer)

CHARLOTTE, NC (Mark Price/The Charlotte Observer) - Charlotte's temporary winter shelter program closed this week, putting more than 60 families back on the streets.

The number of homeless families using the Room in the Inn program rose by 20 percent this winter, officials said.

In all, 1,500 people used the initiative over the winter, including 109 children and disabled people using walkers and wheelchairs. They ranged from age 83 to children only a few months old, said Paul Hanneman of the Urban Ministry Center. The program ended for the season on March 31.

"Where are those families now?" Hanneman asks. "I don't have a good answer. They may be back sleeping in their cars."

The families won't find beds at the city's largest emergency family shelter, the Salvation Army Center of Hope. It remains at capacity and is turning up to two dozen people away every day, said shelter officials.

Deronda Metz, director of the Center of Hope, says the closing of Room in the Inn always means more people sleeping in cars outside the shelter. It's not safe, she says, but she has no solution to it.

She does have an idea, however, that might make their lives easier: The creation of safe lots in the city, where such families can park at night. These would be lots that are well lit, patrolled regularly by police and might even offer access to a public restroom.

It's an outlandish idea for Charlotte, she says, but is actually being tried elsewhere. In Seattle, a safe parking program was created five years ago, opening up church lots where people can park and connect to housing services.

Metz is hoping Charlotte's faith community may help cobble together a similar program, which would allow homeless families to park in areas of the city near their jobs or the schools attended by their children.

It's an answer, she says, but not a solution.

"I know of no other options," says Metz. "The reality is we have people sleeping outside anyway. I'm just looking for a model from another city where people can do so safely, while still connecting to the services we offer. If you talk to someone who has a better solution, please let me know."

In addition to the shelter lot, homeless families stay in the lot at the nearby Crisis Assistance Ministry, as well as the lots of 24-hour department stores.

Walmart, which is open 24 hours, has a practice of allowing store managers at individual sites to decide whether people can sleep in their lots, including people living in RVs.

Hanneman believes what Metz is proposing is an option the community should consider, as opposed to "people circling the local Walmart for a quiet corner."

Mecklenburg County commissioner Pat Cotham agrees. She says she has actually visited the Center of Hope parking lot at night to offer blankets and food to families sleeping in their cars.

She believes the best case scenario would be if they could sleep in the parking lot of the shelter. However, Metz says the lot isn't big enough and she doesn't have money for hiring security to keep them safe at night.

"I think it's important that people are safe and can sleep in peace," Cotham says. "If the police can drive around my neighborhood and make sure we're safe, I see no reason why they can't drive around the parking lots and make sure these people are safe. The parking lot is like their neighborhood. In many cases, these are women who have escaped or experience some kind of domestic abuse and they are traumatized."

Metz notes the people sleeping in their cars are doing so because the city does not have emergency shelter space for in tact families, which include a husband and wife.

In other cases, the families sleeping in cars are single women who are dealing with a last minute disruption, such as being put out of a relative's home or splitting with a partner. The problem is worse now more than ever in Charlotte due to the city's infamous lack of affordable housing. The average monthly rent in the city now is $1,142.

This year, Room in the Inn reports it was only able to find subsidized housing for four of the 67 families in the program, Hanneman says.

A proposal that the faith community offer lots for families in sleeping cars is in some ways a variation of the Room in the Inn program. It enlists gyms, churches and other houses of faith to taken in the homeless for a night during the coldest month of the year.

This year, the program had 112 host sites spread throughout the city, including some congregations that teamed up to host the homeless for a night, he says.