Meck. Co. manager cites ‘community problem’ as Tent City forced to clear

Updated: Feb. 19, 2021 at 3:38 PM EST
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - Residents of Charlotte’s “Tent City” are preparing to vacate their camp north of uptown with the help of Mecklenburg County officials and community partners.

On Tuesday, Mecklenburg County issued an abatement order, giving the residents in that area 72 hours to vacate the premises, citing a growing rat infestation. The deadline for Tent City residents to vacate is 5 p.m. Friday.

LIVE: Meck County talks Tent City and COVID-19

WATCH LIVE: Mecklenburg County leaders are talking about COVID-19 and Tent City as the deadline for residents of the homeless camp to vacate is just two hours away

Posted by WBTV News on Friday, February 19, 2021

Henry Mobley has lived in Tent City for the last four months but as he boarded the van to the shelter he said he’s gaining more than what’s he’s leaving behind.

“People out here are really suffering, women with kids, the cold, tents, rats running around all night, that shouldn’t happen like this not in America period,” Mobley said

Terry Howard lives in another shelter but is no stranger to Tent City. He believes the county’s plans to put people in hotels won’t work in the long run.

He believes people will be right back on the street.

“Everybody’s like ‘okay they’re putting us in hotels, they’re doing this they’re doing that’ but at the end of the day - it’s get out,” Howard said.

The execution of the abatement order has been met with some criticism from several local leaders including the City of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County Sheriff Garry McFadden.

On Thursday, County Manager Dena Diorio, along with Public Health Director Gibbie Harris and other officials, spoke about the conditions at “Tent City” over the last year and the ongoing efforts to relocate residents and offer them assistance.

“We have encouraged and helped many of the individuals find safe and stable housing,” Diorio said, adding that there were some people that did not leave. “Let me be clear - this is not a Mecklenburg County problem but a community problem.”

Harris said the conditions have deteriorated with trash pileups, uncontrolled burns and uncontrolled use of poison to handle the rats. Harris made it clear that moving people from the encampment is not a solution to the long-term issue of homelessness, but an immediate action to handle the current issues there with the rat infestation and health risks.

“The thing that brought about the imminent hazard declaration was an immediate threat to the individuals living on that site [and surrounding areas],” Harris said.

Harris says they did not see the evidence of the rats earlier in January when they assessed the situation. She says her staff was making weekly visits and noticed “a quality of life issue” when it came down to the trash being left out, but they were not aware of the evidence of rats until Feb. 12.

Diorio says they were promised transportation for the residents by the city manager, but found out on Wednesday they did not have enough drivers.

“At this point it was clear they were not going to be in a position to help us,” Diorio said.

The county is still developing a plan to transport people despite the commitment from the city transportation not happening the way they planned. Residents are also being offered COVID-19 tests as they leave the encampment. Harris said as of Thursday morning, they had not seen any positive results. The vaccine is also available for people 65 and up.

The county is encouraging landlords to help the “Tent City” residents with long-term housing solutions. There are also other resources available for mental health and substance use. The county estimates there were 150 people living in “Tent City.” County leaders and community partners are assisting in helping to find shelter for those in need.

Emergency shelters have made space for nearly 50 individuals already who had reported living in the encampment, with dozens more men accessing Roof Above’s winter shelter each night.

The county is working with community partners to expand existing shelter capacity through an additional shelter hotel. This shelter hotel is only for people living in the North End Encampment area and will be open for 90 days, during which time, staff will work with each individual to find another housing resource. County staff and community partners are working on-site to help residents know their options for shelter and other resources including access to mental health and substance use services, housing navigation and case management.

Officials say transportation, meals, laundry and security services will be provided as well. COVID-19 testing will be provided as the individuals leave the encampment site and vaccines will be offered to all aged 65 and up.

Mecklenburg County Commissioner Leigh Altman says they have 80 beds available and are working to expand existing shelter capacity but assures running out won’t be an issue. Altman made it clear they’re not trying to force people out, but help them while addressing the public health issue. Grassroots organizations like Hope Vibes are also working to address immediate needs like luggage and moving and brainstorming with other organizations.

Immediately after the county’s press briefing Thursday, the City of Charlotte responded with a statement criticizing the county’s rollout of the abatement order and process of getting residents to vacate the property.

Most prominently noted was that the City of Charlotte was given “little notice” about the county’s abatement order.

“Like many stakeholders, the City of Charlotte was given little notice of the County’s abatement order. On Wednesday, we committed to supporting the County and were asked to help by providing transportation. We had committed to providing busses 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 busses. The City never refused to help and we did not back away from our commitment to provide transportation. We have asked the County how they intend to address people who refuse to leave the encampments and they have yet to provide any solution to that outside of asking law enforcement to physically remove those individuals. The people in the encampments are not criminals and we do not believe they should be treated as such. CMPD is working with community and advocacy groups to identify other resources for people who remain on the site after 5 p.m. Friday. This is a serious issue and one we have been working on with the County. To be clear, Mecklenburg County is the lead agency for homeless and social services in our community. Since 2018, the City has provided more than $35 million to support efforts to end and prevent homelessness. Since the County issued its abatement order on Tuesday, the City has been working to determine how to best satisfy the abatement order, while also respecting the people impacted. As a property owner, we have committed to the County that we will clean the site once they have relocated the individuals, as the County committed to doing. We have and will continue to work with the County and other stakeholders to address this difficult issue,” the statement from the city read.

Mecklenburg County Sheriff Garry McFadden also responded to the abatement order, saying in part that lack of details from elected officials was the major reason why the sheriff’s office had not been involved in the process of vacating the property.

“I have been contacted regarding the encampment by more grass-roots organizations and provided more details about the removal process from those organizations than any elected official,” Sheriff McFadden said in a major part of his statement.

The full statement is below.

“Throughout the Coronavirus pandemic, I have always assisted Mecklenburg County when called upon with a clear and concise plan of action. Every Monday and Wednesday I am on a policy call with all city and county officials, an opportune time to discuss any protocols or concerns, however, logistics on the removal of persons or property from the North End Encampment have never been mentioned. On Tuesday, February 16, 2021 I received a call from Charlotte Fire Department officials stating that CATS would be providing 10 buses to transport persons from the encampment and I was asked if deputies from the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office would drive the buses. Due to limited details and logistics, I declined. Wednesday evening, I received another call asking to provide security, again, with limited details and logistics, I declined to involve the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office. I have been contacted regarding the encampment by more grass-roots organizations and provided more details about the removal process from those organizations than any elected official. As Sheriff, I am always willing to assist and support, when a thorough plan of action is presented. In October 2020, Mecklenburg County Public Health issued an Abatement of Imminent Hazard Order for United House of Prayer. The Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office was contacted, the order was thoroughly discussed, and MCSO assisted as well as provided a daily detailed report to Mecklenburg County Public Health. The Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office remains committed to the citizens of Mecklenburg County,” McFadden said.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department Chief Johnny Jennings also issued a statement about the abatement order saying in part “this is not how this should be managed. CMPD is not going to criminalize homelessness.”

Chief Jennings says CMPD will work with the county regarding enforcement of potential criminal violations of the abatement order after Friday at 5 p.m. The order is enforceable against the property owners, only, not the guests staying in tents.

Chief Jennings’s full statement is below:

“Mecklenburg County did not involve CMPD in any conversations about this Order of Abatement of Imminent Hazard that was issued by the county public health director on Feb. 16, 2021. This order is a civil order, and as such, the civil order does not allow for any criminal law enforcement responses at this time. The order is enforceable against the property owners, only, not the guests staying in tents. After Friday at 5:00 pm., CMPD will work with the County regarding enforcement of potential criminal violations of the abatement order. CMPD was in constant conversations with multiple partners including all of the property owners asking for as much notice as possible about any vacancy notification to work through this transition with those impacted individuals. We agree this is a public health concern, however, this is not how this should be managed. CMPD is not going to criminalize homelessness. Over the years, CMPD officers have worked extensively with members of our homeless community to connect them with resources and support services. If any individuals remain after the county’s deadline, CMPD will assist those remaining to connect them with resources voluntarily. CMPD will respond to any calls for service, including trespass calls from the property owners, as it normally would,” Chief Jennings said.

Charlotte Fire Department also issued a statement in response to the abatement order.

“The Charlotte Fire Department (CFD) is called to serve all people by minimizing the risk to life and is committed to doing so while also ensuring the safety of our personnel. CFD received little notice of Mecklenburg County’s plan to issue an abatement order in response to the conditions at the North End Encampment, but has been willing to work with the county to determine the best course of action. A formal request for firefighters to provide transportation was made late Wednesday evening and through the course of those discussions, it was made clear that should CFD provide personnel to assist that security be present. This has been standard practice on all similar missions that CFD has fulfilled at the request of the county. At no point did CFD indicate that security from a particular law enforcement agency would not suffice, only that security must be present, as has been the standard protocol. Our offer to assist was never withdrawn and as of Thursday morning, CFD had a plan in place to provide assistance, if the security element was addressed. The county withdrew their request for transportation and as the situation stands, CFD continues to be willing and able to provide assistance,” Charlotte Fire Department’s statement read.

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