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Homeless meal program gets 2-year extension on North Tryon

Lindsey Mohnacky (center serving plate) and other volunteers of UpsideDown Church in action as church volunteers serve food to the homeless at the Hal Marshall Building on N. College St. Story will focus on a county program that lets churches and civic groups use county property to feed homeless people indoors. The program is credited with cutting down on loitering in uptown. Diedra Laird - dlaird@charlotteobserver.com
Lindsey Mohnacky (center serving plate) and other volunteers of UpsideDown Church in action as church volunteers serve food to the homeless at the Hal Marshall Building on N. College St. Story will focus on a county program that lets churches and civic groups use county property to feed homeless people indoors. The program is credited with cutting down on loitering in uptown. Diedra Laird - dlaird@charlotteobserver.com dlaird@charlotteobserver.com

Mecklenburg County’s intention to see the Hal Marshall complex used for redevelopment is a boon for North Tryon Street, but it also undermines a solution put in place six years ago to quell drug dealing, prostitution and petty crimes linked to free meals being served to the homeless at a spot known as “the wall.”

All those troubles ended abruptly in 2010, when the county offered free use of the Hal Marshall Center Annex to the churches, charities and civic groups that were serving food to the homeless on an almost daily basis.

Several among the five participating ministries vowed this month to return to “the wall,” after county officials announced the annex would close May 1 and be torn down.

But that plan has changed.

County officials announced this week that the annex will likely stay open another 2  1/2 years, because the space is needed to house staff moving from Walton Plaza at 700 Stonewall St. near McDowell Street. Walton Plaza is another county property being sold and redeveloped, and expectations are that construction by a developer will occur sooner there than originally expected, officials said.

The Hal Marshall Center and its annex are still destined to close and be torn down, but that won’t likely happen until August of 2018, officials say.

Peter Safir of Mecklenburg County Homeless Services said the extension came at a time when he had exhausted efforts to find a new home for the Homeless Resource Center, as it was called. Multiple uptown sites, including some churches, had turned down requests to host the meals, which are busiest in the spring and summer months.

“It would look like we hadn’t honored a commitment,” he said. “I’m relieved. This program filled a gap for 400 to 500 people (a week) as a place where people could get a meal, including people who brought children and low income people who came from nearby Charlotte Housing Authority sites.”

Ministries have been using “the wall” area near the Hal Marshall Center since 1994 to pass out food and preach. The practice began drawing complaints from nearby businesses just after the recession, when crowds grew to 300 a night. Police reported a half dozen people a month were being arrested in the area, for crimes that included drug dealing, public intoxication, public urination and fighting.

The county’s solution provided the ministries with a free dining hall (in the former office of the medical examiner), along with restrooms, security guards to keep the peace, and county social workers to help the homeless get access to housing, job and health care programs.

Had the annex shut down, it likely would have exacerbated a growing debate over whether the homeless people who flock to North Tryon Street are an impediment to redevelopment. The free meals program is part of the attraction to North Tryon, along with the Men’s Shelter of Charlotte and the Urban Ministry Center. The latter two have rebuffed suggestions by North Tryon Street businesses that they move their operations.

Pastor Mary Waters of the group Commandos for Christ has been offering meals and prayers in the area for 18 years, and she admits some of the homeless do get rowdy.

Waters knew a new host site had not been found, and she had already come up with a Plan B. “If it closed, we’d have gone back to the street. We will not stop as long as there are hungry people standing there thanking us for giving them food.”

A survey done in October of the homeless who came for free food showed 74 percent were men in their mid-40s. The 300 people surveyed included five infants and 48 people over age 60. More than half the adults were chronically homeless people who had lived on the streets for years, and 63 percent said they slept the previous night “in a place unfit for human habitation.”

A community push to end chronic homelessness in Mecklenburg County is seeing success, by housing many of them in nonprofit apartment communities or placing them in rental units using benefits and subsidies.

If the housing initiative goes as expected, there may not be a need for the meals program in 2018, Safir said.

Rachel Harris of the Serve Charlotte’s Homeless ministry predicts volunteers will keep showing up with food no matter what happens. She joined the meals effort as a volunteer four years ago, and assumed the role of a coordinator in 2013, working with her dad, Jeff Wilson.

Had the annex closed, one option could have been to walk down Tryon Street passing out free food and bottled water, which a faction of Serve Charlotte’s Homeless already does every other Sunday afternoon, she said.

“Some people believe strongly that it is part of their faith to take responsibility for taking care of others, and then you have others in our group who do it because they feel like they are contributing something to the community,” said Harris. “What we’re doing helps people in need, but it also provides the rest of us with a chance to feel connected.”

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