CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - The time has come for residents of “Tent City” to move out.
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 was 5 p.m. Friday.
County leaders estimated that about 20 people were still there as the deadline closed in. They assured that nobody was turned away and they are still working to find a place for people in the encampment to stay.
Sean Caldwell has been living in the Tent City area for over two years now. He says the last three days have been nothing short of a whirlwind.
“What am I going to do with my stuff? Where are we going do we have food there?” Caldwell said.
He says this time in the hotel is a relief especially with the bone-chilling winter weather but says he’s skeptical of the county’s plans for housing solutions.
“If 90 days means we’re going to come back to the streets then we might as well stay out here in the streets,” Caldwell said.
County leaders assure they’re working with case managers to help tent city residents after their 90 days and even those who are still there.
Helping at Tent City is personal for Katrina Carter, she was once homeless herself. Now she and other organizations are using their own funding to put people in hotels.
“We even help with rides to wherever they have to go. And if we do have the funds we even offer to put a lot in hotels,” Carter said.
Many other grassroots organizations have also been helping transport residents to the hotel and find rooms for them at other locations.
County Manager Dena Diorio said that they are encouraging anyone who is still there to relocate as they prepare for the clean-up process.
She said it is up to the surrounding property owners from this point forward to move people still in the area.
“If you read the order, it’s really the property owners’ responsibility to have those folks removed and we’re going to rely on the property owners to do what they need to do in order to make that happen,” she said.
Caldwell is urging officials to utilize empty buildings for permanent housing sites.
“Put these people in those buildings even if you have to open another shelter. They’ve got five story buildings up there that are empty,” he 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.