Charlotte’s neediest see Panthers as their team, too

Harry Mack gets off a ladder while decorating the Salvation Army Center of Hope on Thursday for Sunday’s Super Bowl 50 party.
Harry Mack gets off a ladder while decorating the Salvation Army Center of Hope on Thursday for Sunday’s Super Bowl 50 party. mhames@charlotteobserver.com

When Charlotteans gather Sunday to root for the Carolina Panthers, the cheering may be loudest at places where the homeless will be gathered.

Panthers players and their wives are considered friends among the city’s neediest, prone to showing up with gifts, food and money.

As a result, there will be a series of tailgates Sunday for the city’s homeless, including affairs at the Salvation Army Center of Hope, Charlotte Rescue Mission, the Men’s Shelter of Charlotte, New Outreach Christian Center and St. John’s Episcopal Church.

It’s an approach that appears to be far different than the one being taken by San Francisco, which has between 6,000 and 7,000 homeless. The city is reportedly “herding” homeless people away from Super Bowl City, a Host Committee fan village to showcase the Bay Area. Homeless there complain city employees are sending them to a shelter four miles away. City leaders deny that, saying they’re helping the homeless find better shelter from the weather.

Meanwhile in Charlotte, the hot wings served Sunday at the Center of Hope are being paid for by Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis and his wife, Kelly, who is a regular visitor to the shelter, said Harry Mack, a housing specialist with the Center of Hope.

Mack says the Davises are just one example of how the team has befriended people who are homeless. Safety Roman Harper treated women at the shelter to brunch on Christmas morning. Charles Johnson took a group of children Christmas shopping. And just weeks ago, safety Colin Jones paid six women’s utility bills to help them transition from the shelter into housing. In one case, he paid a month’s rent for the family.

“He went to the rental office himself. It was remarkable,” said Mack. “The woman teared up when she found out and so did I. People in the shelter feel these players actually care about them and want nothing from them in return. When they cheer during the Super Bowl, it will be for players they feel they know personally.”

Other nonprofits have their own stories of generosity from Panthers players.

Kicker Graham Gano visited the Charlotte Rescue Mission with donations. Running back Jonathan Stewart served lunch at the Men’s Shelter. The team supplied food to the New Outreach Christian Center for a previous tailgate party.

Randall Hitt of the Men’s Shelter says the agency has two options this year for men to watch the game Super Bowl: at the shelter or at an elaborate tailgate party arranged by St. John’s Episcopal Church. The latter, now in its fourth year, will include a chili cook-off judged by homeless men, who have a reputation for honesty.

“This game is just as important to them as the rest of city,” said Hitt. “I can walk through this shelter and hear men arguing about quarterbacks just like you’d hear in the YMCA locker room. These guys are more like us than we realize. They are part of the community, and they are behind the Panthers.”

St. John’s Episcopal Church expects to host up to 60 men from shelter on Sunday for what has become an annual affair. John Patrick of St. John’s came up with the idea. He’s also the one who suggested St. John’s existing chili cook-off could have more impact if it included the homeless as test tasters.

“Our purpose in all this is to allow the men to enjoy the game and, for a few hours, escape their problems and concerns,” Patrick said. “You can tell they are having a good time, hooting and hollering, screaming and yelling. It’s four or five hours on a Sunday that can make a man’s life a little better.

“Sometimes, that’s good enough.”