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City avoids homeless loitering by letting them use county building for gatherings

Micha Autry describes herself as a religious woman who feels driven to help Charlotte’s homeless.

But that’s not easy in a city that has guidelines for just about everything, including where and when you can feed the hundreds of needy people who wander Center City streets.

“We had been setting up tables under a bridge not far from the Men’s Shelter and we were told we couldn’t do it,” said Autry, a Mount Holly woman who is part of an outreach team at her Lifebuilder Church of God, a small church in Charlotte.

“I’ve written the mayor and the governor. We even asked a downtown church if we could use their parking lot to hand out food and clothing and they said no.”

What Autry wants to do isn’t necessarily against the law.

It’s more like breaking a truce, one that has spared Charlotte the protests and bad publicity generated by recent crackdowns on the homeless in cities like Raleigh and Columbia, S.C.

Charlotte once had its own problems with the homeless, including complaints of prostitution, drug dealing and public urination that lingered long after churches finished giving out food at a site known as “the wall” off North Tryon Street.

But that changed when community leaders came up with a solution that has so far appeased both uptown businesses and most of the groups that insist feeding the hungry is a religious freedom.

The compromise: If you want to tend to uptown’s plentiful homeless population, you do it indoors, using a building at 618 N. College Street provided by Mecklenburg County. There’s a registry, too, and rules that include committing to show up with food regularly. The county even supplies security guards and social workers to connect the homeless to benefits.

This has been standard practice in Charlotte for three years now and government officials say the result has been a drop the petty criminal activity that once plagued North Tryon Street around “the wall.”

Carson Dean, head of the Men’s Shelter of Charlotte, says there are still faith groups that manage to slip under the radar and serve food on the streets to the homeless.

“The blow up in in Raleigh with feeding the homeless has been an ongoing issue there for years, and I think our community handled it smartly, in a less confrontational way,” Dean said.

“Here, we looked for alternatives and we did a good job of bringing everyone together to find a better way than attacking it.”

Example: Mecklenburg County officials say they’re hoping to find a way to work Micha Autry’s church into the existing meal program, once details have been ironed out on her group’s willingness to show up regularly.

By contrast, Raleigh recently told charitable and religious groups they would be arrested if they didn’t stop a long-standing tradition of feeding the homeless in a downtown park on weekends. That stance later softened, until a different solution can be found.

In Columbia, S.C., the city council voted to have the homeless arrested in downtown unless they went to a remote shelter. The council later reversed the decision after protests erupted.

Charlotte has an estimated 7,000 homeless, including some living temporarily in hotels or doubled up in the homes of friends and family.

Use of “the wall” to feed them dates back to at least 1994, when a ministry from Freedom Christian Center began running an outdoor soup kitchen on Sunday mornings.

About a half dozen churches and civic groups are now participating in the county’s indoor program, including some who serve breakfast on weekends.

However, not every one supported the idea at first. Carson Dean noted Mecklenburg County already has a half dozen programs that already provide free food to the homeless. “Our homeless citizens aren’t going hungry,” he said. “If there was no need, why do it?”

Pastor Brenda Baruth says its a matter of wanting to minister to the homeless, which is why she had her own concerns. She is part of a faith-based group that has been giving food away in uptown for about 14 years.

“This is what I told the county: The day the county says you cannot administer the word of God in a government building will be the day I’m back on the street doing it,” said Baruth. “They assured me it would not be a problem and they have kept their word.”

Baruth has since become a major supporter of the decision to move the free meals indoors, and is particularly happy that the county is providing security.

She recalled a day four years ago when a homeless man threatened to slit the throat of another volunteer. “We decided it was time to back off and we took a year off,” she said.

Allyson Berbiglia is with a group that gives out food on Friday nights and she noted children are sometimes among the volunteers. “I’m not sure people would feel safe if (the county) didn’t provide security,” she said. “I can think of one or two times when someone got loud and disruptive and the security guard cleared them out and kept the peace.”

Peter Safir, who works with the county’s homeless support programs, is among the leaders who put together the plan to allow indoor feeding of the homeless.

Security on site reports an average of about four disruptive incidents a month, including men who show up intoxicated and start name calling, he said.

An average of 600 to 800 meals a week are being served, with some groups reporting three times the numbers they fed a year ago, Safir said.

The number of homeless families showing up has increased, too. A recent count showed 64 meals were served to kids over a one month period, Safir said. This includes mothers with infants and toddlers.

“That caught me by surprise,” he said. “When we started this out, we had no children, so to have 64 in one month is significant. I think it may reflect the fact that what we’ve done is create a safe and compassionate environment.”

On Friday, a half dozen children were served including two that were less than a year old. Church groups say the parents aren’t necessarily homeless, but they don’t have enough money to pay their rent and buy food, too.

Safir says people like that are just as welcomed as those living on the streets.

Will, who is 36, is among those living on Charlotte’s streets and he says the meals served by church groups are keeping him alive. He said he avoids the city’s shelters because they remind him too much of his years in prison.

“You can’t call yourself a Christian and be against helping people who are hungry,” said Will, as he ate chicken and rice served by a church group on Friday.

“It starts with the simple things. I’m at a place in life where I can’t see past the next meal. What these people are doing is helping me move to that next level, a better life.”

Price: 704-358-5245
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