Charlotte police officers looked more like social workers than cops this week in the Belmont neighborhood.
“Things are changing fast around here,” Officer Ted Castano told a pair of older men, who nodded in agreement.
The men rent a house that Castano – who’s been with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department more than 20 years – has heard may soon be torn down, leaving the lot to be sold for new residential development.
“You might want to talk to someone about affordable housing. Rent has been going up here,” Castano told the two men, inviting them to an event a few blocks away.
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Police partnered with affordable housing and job counselors, mental health professionals, and substance abuse treatment experts to run an event at Belmont neighborhood community garden on Thursday. Residents of Belmont helped set up tables and tents for the event. Nearly 100 people showed up.
The community sits between uptown Charlotte and Plaza Midwood – both costlier places to buy or rent homes – and development is creeping in from both ends. Homeowners in the area, in recent years, have benefited from increased land value but renters are in a precarious spot.
There was high demand for housing counselors and rent assistance information at the event Thursday.
Events like it are held every month in neighborhoods around Charlotte as part of an ongoing partnership between police and Cardinal Innovations, the agency that oversees mental and behavioral health services in Mecklenburg County for low-income and uninsured people. The first was held in CMPD’s Central Division, with a focus on helping people with drug addiction who panhandle or stand in public places asking for money.
The work started as a way for mental health professionals and police to jointly address a recent surge in homelessness and panhandling. CMPD has said it needs broader solutions than putting homeless and poor people in jail.
In Belmont, panhandling, drug use and violence is trending downward, police officers say. But, the neighborhood is attracting new development, which puts long-term residents at risk of being displaced.
The two men who Castano stopped to talk with near Seigle Avenue live in a two-story house. It’s owned by a local landlord who has had interest from developers who want to tear down old properties in Belmont and make way for newer, more expensive homes, Castano said.
The house is well-known to CMPD officers. Bullet holes in the house’s front exterior can be seen from the street. Police used to get frequent “shots fired” 911 calls to the property, they say, but the pace has slowed recently. Past investigations turned up illegal liquor sales at the home, Castano said.
The two men stepped off their porch and met Castano near the edge of the roadway in front of their home on Thursday. Riding with Castano in a police ATV were Eastway Division Lt. Steven Durant and Officer Paul Benloss. These policemen wear the same uniform as regular CMPD patrol officers but their assignment is different.
While those on patrol respond to most 911 police calls in the city, officers like Castano and Benloss focus on community policing. They run additional projects like youth mentoring programs, sports camps and neighborhood events. They respond to calls and texts and emails directly from people who live in the neighborhoods they serve.
They’re watching gentrification – the onset of urban development in traditionally low-income and minority neighborhoods – slowly start to re-shape Belmont’s streets and they’re worried residents may not be able to afford their rent anymore. New homes are for sale, others are under construction and some old houses are under major renovations in major pockets of Belmont. Apartments are under construction, too, and families continue to move in to modern units that replaced an aging and crime-troubled public housing building, Piedmont Courts.
Mom-and-pop businesses and corner stores rule Belmont’s commercial scene now but these shops live a threatened existence as new residents move in and developers anticipate Charlotte’s light rail transportation extension to increase demand.
Belmont has an active neighborhood association and has used grant funding to make improvements to old buildings and public spaces. The neighborhood is close-knit, with a strong network of churches and community-oriented groups.
But, some families still have trouble accessing health and housing services they need, said Lt. Durant. He says CMPD officers see it as part of their job to do outreach and offer help, including giving people rides if they need it. The officers also check in on a small homeless camp, with tents set up near a railroad trestle in the neighborhood. Rather than make arrests there, Durant said, police have been encouraging people to get addiction treatment or mental health services, if needed.
‘Human relations’ mission
Most homes in Belmont were built as part of a mill village. Belmont residents once could walk to work in Charlotte’s biggest cotton mill. But, the textile mill closed 60 years ago. Since then, the area has seen economic depression and periods of high crime.
“This used to be one of the biggest open-air drug markets in Charlotte – that’s changed a lot,” said Officer Dustin Wippel who has worked the Belmont beat for eight years.
Drive-by shootings and break-ins have decreased and more residents are willing to call their regular community police officers when a problem arises, he said.
“They have been a blessing,” said Vicki “Lottie” Taylor, of the CMPD officers who work in her neighborhood.
Taylor, known as “Ms. Lottie” in the community, has five grandchildren and, having grown up in Belmont, she knows most of her neighbors.
“These officers know each and every last one of them,” she said of Belmont’s residents.
Recently, one of Taylor’s grandsons faced felony charges and CMPD officers were attempting to serve warrants but the young man refused to leave his home.
Then, Castano intervened. He made an agreement with the family that the officers would back off if Taylor’s grandson would turn himself in after the weekend.
“7 a.m. – I walked him down to the jail myself,” Taylor said.
To Taylor, that’s the way police and community relations should work. Thursday, her grandson was one of the people who spoke with work force counselors who work for Goodwill and the state to share information about careers and job training.
It’s a sign community officers are building trust in places like Belmont, Durant said.
It’s been particularly effective, Durant said, for CMPD to partner with outside organizations and bring counselors and services directly to communities. CMPD and Cardinal Innovations say this kind of approach has helped increase access to health services for people whose biggest obstacle to getting help is often lack of transportation.
“It’s imperative that we have that type of relationship,” Durant said. “It’s not just police-community relations – it’s human relations.”