‘Nobody deserves to live in a tarp.’ Teams count Charlotte homeless in freezing cold.

In the pitch-black cold, outside a shuttered Rite Aid in west Charlotte, they shouted for him, shining a searchlight from a police car.

“Anthony?” shouted Amy Stukey. “Are you here?”

“We have some things for you.”

He wasn’t in front of the old pharmacy. Not by the old mattresses in the parking lot. But around the corner, inside the fences that were once used to keep trash, Anthony McNeish, 46, rustled awake.

“You found me,” he said, a narrow man in a long black coat.

A homeless man met and asked questions at the dumpster area where he is living by volunteers Katy Harrell and Laura Covian. He is living in this dumpster area. Volunteers in small groups will headed out on the streets before dawn Thursday to count the number of homeless people in Mecklenburg County. Diedra Laird dlaird@charlotteobserver.com

As he stumbled past the fencing, two social workers came up to pepper him with questions: Why is he not in a homeless shelter? Did he lose his home because of domestic violence or a natural disaster?

And could he use a tent? A pair of gloves, or a hat? Some coffee?

They were part of an army of volunteers, police officers and county officials who fanned out across Mecklenburg County before dawn on Thursday to tally those who had spent the night in shelters, tents, and parked cars.

The results, an annual snapshot known as a “point-in-time count,” are submitted to the Department of Housing and Urban Development in order to receive federal funding to combat homelessness.

But they also serve as a potent indicator of who’s getting left behind in a city that has struggled to provide affordable housing, advocates say.

The overwhelming majority of those people, about 90 percent in last year’s count, stay in homeless shelters or transitional housing. Thursday’s predawn efforts -- in woods, along Uptown streets, and in parking lots on a 27-degree morning -- serve to find the rest.

“We are counting people, but there’s a face and a story behind every single person that we count,” said Stukey, a police sergeant. “Nobody deserves to live in a tarp behind the railroad tracks in the freezing cold.”

Michael Gault gets a cup of coffee from Mecklenburg County case coordinator Shamika Murray. Volunteers in small groups will headed out on the streets before dawn Thursday to count the number of homeless people in Mecklenburg County. Diedra Laird dlaird@charlotteobserver.com

Yet that was where Michael Gault, 41, went to sleep on Thursday, his second month camping out there since he became homeless two years ago.

Many of the county’s chronically homeless have struggled with addiction and often have some kind of criminal record that has kept away potential landlords and employers.

Gault said he was convicted for arson in 1998, and arrested a few times since for trespassing on private property as he slept.

“I don’t see why that should prevent me from getting housing,” he said, ice dangling on his beard and hands quivering as he accepted a cup of coffee. “I just want to get off the streets. It ain’t easy or fun. It’s not the life to have.”

He previously had been living in a tent behind a QT gas station, Gault said, and the owner would bring him food and give him the chance to do his laundry.

But when he accepted someone else to come live with him -- and that man started shooting heroin in the gas station’s bathroom -- Gault said he was forced to relocate across the railroad tracks.

Teams assigned to count people outside the city center, like Stukey’s group, rely on records from police and the Urban Ministry Center, whose outreach staff spends every weekday out offering services to people in camps and abandoned buildings.

Shamika Murray, a case coordinator for Mecklenburg County, said that on frigid mornings like Thursday -- with windchill that made it feel more like 17 degrees -- the only people sleeping on the streets are the ones who refuse to sleep in shelters.

Homeless men living in a truck receive supplies from volunteer Katy Harrell, left. Volunteers in small groups will headed out on the streets before dawn Thursday to count the number of homeless people in Mecklenburg County. Diedra Laird dlaird@charlotteobserver.com

Those individuals who remained outside on Thursday morning said they prefer to avoid Charlotte’s homeless shelters -- which they say are too dangerous, too crowded, or too far across town.

Outside the Rite Aid, with the roar of trucks going by, McNeish called the shelters “hard-headed and stubborn.”

And while similar data has led to local changes -- Courtney Morton, who heads Mecklenburg County’s community support services, said last year’s survey helped lead to renovations at the Charlotte Men’s Shelter -- other individuals resist all kinds of help, no matter how often it’s offered.

“It’s much easier for them to stand in the median and get money than it is for them to come to the ministry and get some services,” said Stukey, the police sergeant.

On one blustering night as a volunteer with the Urban Ministry Center, she was asked to check on one such individual who preferred to sleep on the side of the road.

“She was somebody who had been offered services again and again and again, and for whatever reason, she did not want to stay in housing,” Stukey said.

But the woman wouldn’t wake up, Stukey said. She had frozen to death.

Teo Armus writes about race, immigration and social issues for The Charlotte Observer. He previously worked for The Washington Post, NBC News Digital, and The Texas Tribune, including a stint reporting from the U.S.-Mexico border. He is a graduate of Columbia University, a native Spanish speaker and the son of South American immigrants.
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