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North Tryon promoters at odds with homeless charities

The Men's Shelter of Charlotte plans to stay on N. Tryon Street and is beginning a $7 million campaign for a complete renovation. In addition to providing shelter, the center also provides services that help the homeless get back on their feet.
The Men's Shelter of Charlotte plans to stay on N. Tryon Street and is beginning a $7 million campaign for a complete renovation. In addition to providing shelter, the center also provides services that help the homeless get back on their feet. mhames@charlotteobserver.com

Backers of the long awaited transformation of North Tryon Street into Charlotte’s next boom corridor insist the Men’s Shelter of Charlotte and Urban Ministry Center must move from the area if those plans are to fully bloom.

They believe the hundreds of homeless people who walk between the two charities will discourage developers and homebuyers and frighten away customers of new businesses.

“You’ve got one main corridor that is the (northern) gateway to the Queen City and it will never become what it should because of that eyesore,” says Mark Middlesworth, president of North End Partners, a nonprofit created to promote the revitalization of North Tryon Street.

Such complaints aren’t new. Uptown has long had a tense relationship with the homeless, and it has worsened as the number of condo and apartment dwellers has jumped. Public drunkenness, aggressive panhandling and people sleeping on benches have prompted growing concern from civic leaders and complaints from neighbors.

Shelter leaders have no intention of moving, however. Instead, they recently rolled out a $7 million campaign to renovate the 2 1/2-acre site, which sits just outside the Interstate 277 loop. It has been in the building since the early ’90s, when the property was donated through the efforts of United Way.

“There certainly were a number of people who called us and said: ‘Can we relocate you? Are you open to moving?’ ” said Carson Dean, head of the Men’s Shelter.

“Being here makes the lives of the people we serve easier, as far as helping them get back on their feet. And if we move just because this area is under redevelopment, what happens when the next area is under redevelopment? Do we keep pushing those experiencing homelessness further out of sight?

“Homelessness is a problem in Charlotte and people need to be reminded of that.”

Experts say the 2017 opening of the 9.3-mile Blue Line light rail extension north of uptown will spur 10,000 new housing units, with nearly 4 million square feet of offices and 1.3 million square feet of retail.

Development proponents say their intent is not to push the homeless from sight, but more a matter of making that stretch of uptown more welcoming to investors, businesses and homebuyers.

North End Partners, a key backer of North Tryon revitalization, says it’s not giving up hope that both the shelter and nearby Urban Ministry Center can be coaxed into moving. The Urban Ministry is not a shelter but offers programs focused on helping homeless people, including finding them apartments in the community.

Urban Ministry leaders say they are not considering leaving their home at the century-old Seaboard train depot on North Tryon Street, a little more than four blocks south of the shelter.

Problems

North End Partners says the problem is not just the large numbers of homeless who congregate around the two charities.

There’s a criminal element that preys upon the homeless, including drug dealers, prostitutes and thieves, business owners say. Shelter leaders agree, and insist its those criminals who are the true public nuisance roaming North Tryon sidewalks.

Middlesworth believes many city leaders agree the shelter should move but won’t come forward until after the Nov. 3 city elections. He has a stake in the revitalization, as the owner of Extravaganza Depot, a site near the shelter that hosts community events.

One solution, he says, would be for the city to create a campus where the homeless can have all their needs met, including a place to eat, sleep, go to classes and get medical care. He likens the idea to the block off Statesville Avenue where the Salvation Army Center of Hope, Second Harvest Food Bank and Crisis Assistance Ministry operate adjacent to each other.

If the shelter moves ahead on the $7 million renovation, Middlesworth fears that investment will anchor it there for decades. “Spending millions of dollars on that place may make it less of an eyesore, but the problems that surround it will remain the same.”

The shelter’s location only recently has become an issue, as the economy has rebounded and planners have seen endless possibilities for redevelopment on North Tryon Street. Their inspiration is just down the road, where South End is booming thanks to the light rail’s presence there.

In 2009, an estimated 3,400 people lived in South End. By the end of this year, that number is expected to reach 7,600 residents.

North Tryon lawyer Ted Greve says revitalization is inevitable once the light rail line opens, but he fears the Men’s Shelter and Urban Ministry will prompt development to skip the five blocks between I-277 and the train overpass at 16th Street.

Greve’s law office is in the middle of those five blocks, directly across from the shelter. He has owned the property since 1987, which predates the shelter.

“Ultimately, it will have a negative impact on the city, not only because this section will be unaffected by growth, but because of the lost tax base,” Greve said. “I don’t think renovating the shelter building is going to somehow increase the desirability of the area. … Anybody who says it’s not a problem is wrong and they know it.”

Dean doesn’t think the shelter will stifle revitalization, partly because his agency’s mission is quickly changing. Annual counts show the homeless population in Charlotte is edging down. Nightly numbers at the shelter have dropped from nearly 600 at the height of recession to a recent average of 350.

The improved economy gets some credit. But the shelter itself is doing more to get men out quickly, creating programs that help them find other options. This includes connecting them to disability or veteran’s benefits that can pay their rent, or finding relatives who agree to take them off the streets.

Dean said the shelter has found more appropriate housing for more than 1,500 men since 2012, when the new programs were launched.

As a result, the shelter renovation will not add more beds. Most of the interior work will prepare the building to host even more programs that help homeless men get back on their feet.

Center City Partners Support

Among the unexpected backers of the shelter’s plan to stay put is Charlotte Center City Partners. The organization’s motivation is partly based on research done elsewhere that shows problems with the homeless – including sleeping outdoors – can worsen if shelters are relocated too far from the inner city.

The agency, headed by Michael Smith, has lately become a partner with charities in the effort to deal with homelessness, hosting meetings to discuss the issues homeless people bring to the uptown area.

Smith said his group is looking for ways to balance Charlotte’s responsibility to help the homeless with its need to grow a more vibrant central core.

“There was discussion at one point of: Should we move homeless services to other, less-populated areas of the city? But then the debate would occur as to where you move them,” said Smith, noting the airport area was considered an option. “But these services need to be accessible and the most accessible part of the city, as far as transit and density, is the center city.”

Still, he anticipates “friction” along North Tryon Street as businesses and homeowners move into an area that has long had a great concentration of homeless people. Newcomers will have to make adjustments to this “imbalance,” he said, and so will those agencies that help homeless people. “They (shelters) will have to adapt to a new environment where the neighborhood is shared.”

Shelter advocates hope the renovation is a step in that direction, noting it will help the site better blend into the neighboring community. Windows, better landscaping and a courtyard are being added, along with critically needed improvements to the roof, heating, plumbing and electrical systems.

Supporters already have committed $1.3 million toward the $7 million goal, a large portion of it from the faith community. A campaign cabinet is at work to raise the next $1 million, which could pull in an additional $300,000 match from the Leon Levine Foundation.

Wells Fargo executive Will Alston, who lives near the shelter, is head of the cabinet working to raise the $1 million. Among its eight members are such community leaders as James Howell, senior pastor of Myers Park United Methodist Church, and Tim O’Boyle, president of Journal Books, a producer of notebooks located in the shelter’s neighborhood. The group plans to raise the money by March.

Work is expected to begin in early 2017 and should be finished by mid-2018. In the mean time, Dean is not expecting community or government leaders to pitch an irresistible relocation plan. He said land and construction costs, along with zoning issues, would thwart any such idea.

“Nobody wants to be next door to a homeless shelter, whether you’re a business or a resident or just a property owner,” he said.

“Yet the homeless shelter must exist. This is the best place for us to be and this is where we’re remaining.”

Helping the shelter

For details: Randall Hitt, director of philanthropy, 704.334.3187 x 109 or Randall.Hitt@MensShelterofCharlotte.org

To donate, visit: www.MensShelterofCharlotte.org and click on “Donate Now” on homepage. Specify for MSC Renovation Campaign.

Mail checks to: Men’s Shelter of Charlotte, PO Box 36471, Charlotte NC 28236

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