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Seven to Watch: Meet the man behind campaign to remove Men’s Shelter from North Tryon

Growing up in Statesville, Mark Middlesworth and his brothers had to help serve breakfast to the homeless at a downtown shelter before their parents would let them open any Christmas gifts.

“It was the way we were raised,” said Middlesworth, owner of Extravaganza Events, an event planning and production company on North Tryon Street. “My parents taught us to give before we received.”

He’s carried that lesson through life, but now, at 49, he has become the face of a contentious debate that leads some to label him a “homeless hater,” he said.

Middlesworth and some neighboring business owners want the Men’s Shelter of Charlotte and nearby Urban Ministry Center to relocate to boost a burgeoning plan to transform North Tryon into Charlotte’s next boom corridor. They argue that the hundreds of homeless individuals who sleep at the shelter and frequent the Urban Ministry for meals and services would discourage development and scare off customers.

They’re urging leaders to create a new campus for the two facilities where comprehensive services for the homeless would be provided.

But the shelters say they’re not going anywhere. Instead, the men’s shelter, which has been on North Tryon since the early 1990s, is raising $7 million to stay “another 30 years,” shelter Executive Director Carson Dean wrote to churches recently.

The influential Charlotte Center City Partners also questions the need for the shelters to move and the county manager has been asked to bring stakeholders together to discuss competing concerns. The issue will figure prominently in 2016 as city leaders consider whether North Tryon can replicate the success of South End.

Middlesworth, president of North End Partners, a nonprofit promoting North Tryon’s revitalization, has been outspoken and blunt about the issue.

“I’ve been told that all I need to do is volunteer at the shelter and I’d learn about the issue and accept the status quo,” he said. “Having a business on North Tryon, I volunteer every day. I protect my people when someone comes in and demands money, scaring my secretary half to death. We pick up trash. We clean up human feces from the loading dock. We turn prostitutes and drug dealers away.

“Is that what Charlotte really wants for an area where they have all these amazing plans to revitalize?”

Dale Mullennix, with Urban Ministry, said he shares the same concerns. “People sleeping on their property. Trash on their property. Drug deals. The same things they don’t want, I don’t want,” he said. “We’re in total agreement.”

But he said Charlotte is on the correct path to ending chronic homelessness with its federal HUD-backed Housing First initiative to place 516 of Mecklenburg’s most vulnerable homeless people in permanent housing by the end of 2016.

“The best solution to redevelop North Tryon is to end homelessness as opposed to wishing it could be moved, which I don’t think is realistic,” he said.

“We have the best strategy going and we’re housing people at a remarkable rate through Housing First.”

‘Disrupt the normal’

Middlesworth rarely does anything discreetly.

If an event at Extravaganza needs an actor, he’s the first to volunteer – costume and all.

He’s the fan in Section 120 at Bank of America Stadium wearing a different costume at every Panthers home game. He’s worn at least 100 different ones since 2000.

“I’ve always tried to disrupt the normal,” said Middlesworth, a divorced father of three daughters. “When I do something, I do it in the biggest of ways.”

He was raised in Statesville, where his grandfather, Chester Middlesworth, migrated from Pennsylvania and bought the Statesville Record & Landmark newspaper. He served as publisher and ultimately, so did Mark’s grandmother, Pauline, and father, also named Chester.

The son had little interest in journalism, and when his father sold the paper, “all of a sudden we had nothing to turn to and were forced to go out and make our own way.”

He moved to Charlotte a few years after graduating from UNC-Chapel Hill. He brought the farming and gardening skills he learned in Statesville to his front yard off Central Avenue, which is a vegetable garden. He raises chickens and rabbits in the back and had a donkey until neighbors complained.

In 2000, at age 34, he bought a warehouse on North Tryon, a lagging urban corridor, to start his events business. “I’ve been on North Tryon for 15 years and I knew what I was getting myself into,” Middlesworth said. “But I thought Charlotte would catch up.”

That may be happening. The 2017 opening of the 9.3-mile Blue Line light-rail extension north of uptown could spark as many as 10,000 new housing units, 4 million square feet of office space and 1.3 million square feet of retail.

A “North Tryon Vision Plan” unveiled by Charlotte Center City Partners shows an area thriving with cafes, shops, apartments, arts centers and public gathering places.

The revitalization would include sale of the county-owned Hal Marshall building, which takes up 11 acres of the North Tryon corridor.

‘Mark is passionate’

Members ofNorth End Partners say they’re not trying to push the homeless from sight, but want to make North Tryon more welcoming to investors, businesses and homebuyers.

They say Middlesworth speaks his mind and he’s the right person to lead their effort.

“Mark is passionate about what he does, he’s a guy who is of his word and speaks the truth – qualities sorely lacking these days,” said Charlotte lawyer and former North End President Ted Greve, whose office is across North Tryon from the shelter. “We’ve had many meetings on this issue, and Mark has tried to get everybody together and build a consensus on what makes sense and go from there.”

Greve called Middlesworth “forthright and frank,” and said the shelter’s leadership “is the exact opposite. They just don’t engage anybody in discussions about vagrancy issues. Littering, drugs and prostitution issues. We have lewd behavior issues and solicitation issues.”

Middlesworth has hosted two “homeless summits,” inviting everyone who has a stake in the matter. Some elected officials have attended, but Dean, the shelter’s executive director, hasn’t, Greve said.

Dean didn’t return calls from the Observer. But after Middlesworth’s latest summit, in late November, Dean sent churches an email to inform them the shelter “is not moving. More importantly, we’ve launched a capital campaign to renovate our current North Tryon Street shelter to serve our community for another 30 years.”

Dean added that the shelter’s staff has moved 1,500 men into housing since 2012 and reduced demand for the shelter by 45 percent.

‘Too much like warehousing’

At the November summit, Middlesworth touted the work of Haven for Hope in San Antonio, Texas, a 22-acre, $100 million complex that has become a national model for housing and providing services and treatments for that city’s homeless residents.

That center offers mental health treatment, physical health care and substance abuse treatment on one campus. The center says more than 1,000 people have gone through its transitional program into permanent housing.

Mullennix, the Urban Ministry executive director, said he’s seen the San Antonio project and feels Housing First – which puts chronically homeless people in housing first and then provides appropriate supportive services – is the best strategy for Charlotte.

Since February, he said, 197 chronically homeless have been placed in housing. “That’s a good pace,” Mullennix said. “There’s a good reason HUD provides funding for the Housing First start. They know that strategy works the best.”

It is saving Mecklenburg taxpayer money, he said. On the street, the chronically homeless can cost the community $40,000 each year in jail time, ER visits and hospital admissions, according to a UNC Charlotte study. In supportive housing, they cost about $14,000 a year.

Still, many of those who use the Men’s Shelter are not among the chronically homeless and would not be part of Housing First.

Mecklenburg County Commissioners Chairman Trevor Fuller said moving the homeless onto a campus feels “too much like warehousing.”

“If what you’re saying is that you want to put people who are homeless in one place – wherever that is – and it’s away from where you are, then I have a problem with that,” Fuller said. “If we want to help people, let’s help people. Just transporting them to another place does nothing for them.

“It’s the same sort of argument used when we talked about urban renewal.”

Plans to ‘get loud’

Middlesworth is urging leaders to create a task force that would bring “a meeting of the minds” together to discuss the issue.

“I think it’s time to look at the homeless issue in a rational way,” he said. “Why not step back and take a look at how we can serve the homeless better before $7 million is sunk (into the shelter)?”

Fuller and Mullennix say that’s a legitimate request. In early December, commissioners asked County Manager Dena Diorio “to convene all the stakeholders to have a conversation about their concerns,” Fuller said.

Center City Partners has said it doesn’t support moving the facilities. Michael Smith, the uptown development group’s CEO, has said once the area is revitalized, the homeless population will blend in.

Middlesworth said his group plans to “get loud” soon.

They’ve hired a lawyer and intend to sue the Men’s Shelter, the city and county, charging that the shelter has degraded their properties and endangered the lives of people who work on North Tryon, he said. They want the court to force the city to buy those properties at reasonable prices or force leaders to “come to terms with creating something that will better serve the homeless in Charlotte.”

“I want Charlotte to improve and I want the homeless to be helped when I feel they are not helped,” said Middlesworth. “Some people, including some in the press, make me out to be a homeless hater and all that I am concerned about is my property value. But they don’t understand how frustrated we are.”

Reporter Mark Price contributed.

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