When you count every bed in Charlotte's homeless shelters, there's still room for only about 600 people.
That leaves literally thousands in need of shelter. Liz Clasen-Kelly sees many of them daily at the Urban Ministry Center where she works.
And she says most are not just curling up on a park bench.
“There are so many things going on ,” Clasen-Kelly says. “People just surviving, people finding a safe place to be … until they get back on their feet.”
One of those noninstitutional options is an under-the-radar shelter where people open their homes to strangers in need of a place to stay.
Some even rent homes and operate secret boarding houses that are well-known in the homeless community but otherwise invisible.
Perhaps the most legendary figure in Charlotte's underground shelter scene is 80-year-old Betty Lou Smith.
“They call me Mother Betty. I've been all over Charlotte. We were down here on Statesville Avenue and I had 16 men. I was hiding them. They was homeless. Then we went to Carter Avenue. That's where I was really hiding them,” Smith said.
She hides them because it's illegal to run a boarding house without a permit from the city. Even then, you can't have more than eight boarders.
Mother Betty's been at this for 40 years – the last 10 in Charlotte. Every few months, the police get wind of her new location and the city shuts her down. She just moves. When her rooms fill up, she lets people sleep on her porch.
It doesn't matter if they're drunk, high or haven't bathed in months, Mother Betty takes anyone who comes to her door. She feeds them and keeps track of them like a mother hen. If they have jobs, she has them pitch in for rent and food.
Inevitably they end up worshipping with her, too. Mother Betty believes she's on a mission from God to heal and save. Mother Betty occasionally preaches on public access television and she relies on tithes from followers to continue her ministry.
It's risky living in a rough part of town and opening her home to complete strangers. But she says she's protected by God – and her street smarts.
Mother Betty says she's only threatened to use a weapon on a houseguest once. At the moment, she has just three people living with her, but soon she hopes to rent the place next door and take in 10 or 15 more.
In 2007, the Observer found 17 such houses across the city. At the time, city officials and social workers said they worry that many houses are crowded and unsafe, but inspectors can't find them and they remain largely unregulated.