Homeless crowd at Trade & Tryon prompts community action

A proposal to temporarily remove benches in the four blocks surrounding Trade and Tryon streets is part of a broader plan community leaders are pitching to shift uptown’s homeless population off the streets and into programs.

Charlotte Center City Partners has asked the city’s Department of Transportation to remove all or most benches from sidewalks near the intersection – known as The Square – for about 30 days.

The city is considering the request and could make a decision in the next two weeks, officials said. City manager Ron Carlee said Thursday that he had not yet seen the request and hadn’t reviewed it with staff.

Center City Partners CEO Michael Smith says the idea is to “disrupt a pattern” of homeless adults living on benches near Trade and Tryon, even to the point of using nearby municipal electrical outlets to recharge their phones and other devices.

Besides removing the benches, Center City Partners has proposed sharing the cost of a social worker who will connect uptown’s homeless to charity or government programs. The social worker will be part of the staff at the Urban Ministry Center, which is one of several partners in the effort.

The community plan is being credited to the Homelessness Task Force, a group convened by Center City Partners and led by homeless services agencies.

Homeless advocates note there’s a touch of irony in the city’s predicament: Overall homelessness is down in Charlotte, even while more people are congregating daily in one part of uptown.

The goal, Smith says, is not to push the homeless into other areas of uptown, but to get as many as possible into health programs, job skills classes and permanent housing.

“The Square has kind of become a shelter without shelter,” Smith said of the homeless using the area as a place to sleep. “It creates a sense of disorder at The Square and invites other criminal behavior. ... And it erodes our ability to grow jobs and new investment.”

An example of the latter, he says, involves a company that recently visited uptown while deciding whether to relocate 1,000 jobs to Charlotte. “The lead executive is a runner that gets up early in the morning and the thing he most wanted to talk to me about was the horrible problem (with the homeless) and how unsafe he felt.”

The initiative comes at a time when North Tryon Street is poised for a resurgence, aided by projects like the 24-story SkyHouse Uptown apartment tower and a proposal to remake several blocks into a “civic district” that will include the renovated Carolina Theatre.

Yet some uptown boosters see an obstacle: North Tryon has one of the highest concentrations of homeless people in the Carolinas, thanks to its proximity to the Urban Ministry Center, The Men’s Shelter of Charlotte, the Homeless Resource Center and the Charlotte Mecklenburg Main Library, a popular hangout for the homeless.

Where else can I sleep?

Walk down Tryon Street in uptown after 10 p.m., and you’ll see a lot of well-dressed couples exiting arts events, young people hanging around bars and sports fans lingering after Knights and Hornets games.

You’ll also see people who sit wrapped in blankets on benches, sleeping in wheelchairs under street lights, or hugging their ragged possessions for dear life at a bus stop shelter.

Among the regulars is 51-year-old Diane, who has been homeless since 2012 and sleeping on a bench near Trade and Tryon since January. Everything she owns fits in a suitcase and a duffel bag, which also serve as her pillow and mattress.

Diane, who prefers not to give her last name, says the concentration of people near Trade and Tryon has an easy explanation: Bank of America security guards.

“See him?” she says, pointing to a guard on one side of Trade Street. “And him?” she says, pointing to a guard on the opposite side the street.

“If I get in trouble, I’d like to believe they will help me. I feel secure here.”

Like many of the homeless at The Square, she has a regular bench she sleeps on each night, and counts on having the same homeless neighbors sleeping directly across from her.

If all the benches were to suddenly disappear, Diane said she might try to get into the Salvation Army Center of Hope, which often has to turn women away because of a lack of beds. (An expansion plan is underway to add 64 beds.)

“If people judge me for sleeping on a bench, I’d like to ask them: Do you have a better place for me to sleep?” she says.

A few blocks away, near North Tryon and Eighth Street, another 51-year-old woman is preparing to spend the night on a bench – her first.

It’s easy to see Gwendolyn Andrews is a beginner, as she sits in her work clothes, with only an overnight bag. No blanket. No sleeping bag. No money.

“I have to be at work at 10 in the morning,” she says, starting to cry. “I’ve never stayed on a bench on the street. I’m real scared to close my eyes. If they move these benches, I’d be walking up and down the street all night, scared out of my mind.”

Crime is up in uptown

A crime analysis recently conducted by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department shows Andrews has reason to worry. Complaints of disturbances, loitering for money, alcohol violations and assaults are up near Trade and Tryon. Aggressive panhandling is also on the rise, officials said.

CMPD Capt. Mike Campagna said police are more actively enforcing laws, including making arrests if warnings and citations fail.

He said the increase in crime at Trade and Tryon is linked not just to the homeless fighting among themselves, but to the people who come to prey upon them, like drug dealers.

“It (The Square) has turned into a 24-hour-a-day hang out,” Campagna said. “We are attracting larger and larger crowds ... and every bench is full.”

Uptown residents, such as Elizabeth Little, say they have noticed the change, with the Center City homeless population going from neighborly to aggressive to downright criminal.

She supports temporarily removing benches after having witnessed a string of crimes ranging from aggressive panhandling to men taking baths in water features near her home. One morning, she says, it was tough to get the front door open because a homeless man was sleeping against it.

“I had one neighbor tell a homeless guy that our yard wasn’t his bathroom, and the homeless guy peed on his feet,” said Little, who has lived in uptown six years.

Greg Johnson has lived in uptown 14 years and he says people who move there come with an expectation of having homeless people as neighbors. However, he agrees with Little that the dynamic in uptown has changed.

“Last winter, there were multiple incidents where residents would go to the car to take their kids to school, and there would be a man sleeping in their car. That has never happened before,” Johnson said.

“We need to address the root causes of homelessness, but we also need to address the symptoms, like sitting in Ninth Street Park – a children’s playground – with a Colt 45 (malt liquor) and urinating on the playground equipment.”

Not enough housing

It’s estimated that Charlotte has in excess of 200 chronically homeless people living on the streets, in abandoned buildings and in camps.

Chronically homeless people are a part of the homeless population known to spend extended periods living on the streets, often because of disabilities and addictions. They are considered costly to the community because of run-ins with the law, time spent in jail, and repeated visits to emergency rooms as well as extended hospital stays.

Center City Partners has enlisted community experts to join its homeless initiative, including the Men’s Shelter of Charlotte, Salvation Army Center of Hope and Charlotte Housing Authority.

Housing nonprofits say they support the Center City Partners’ plan for an aggressive form of outreach that doesn’t wait for the homeless to ask for help. However, all admit no amount of outreach can hide the fact that Charlotte doesn’t have enough permanent supportive housing for chronically homeless.

Liz Clasen-Kelly of the Urban Ministry Center said her agency will participate in the partnership by going out weekly to meet the homeless where they sleep, and learn whether they qualify for the kind of benefits that can help pay for supportive housing.

Examples include people with disabilities, HIV and veterans, she said. Other types of homeless people have a longer wait, which is contributing to what’s happening in uptown.

“People will be displaced if benches are removed,” Clasen-Kelly said. “But I think displacement is a far better approach than that being used by other cities ... We’re fortunate enough to live in a city where the response has not been to arrest people.”

A recent National Law Center report noted there are a growing number of laws in cities across the country to restrict or prohibit sitting or lying down in public, as well as laws prohibiting living in vehicles.

Urban Ministry outreach efforts in uptown started in June, Clasen-Kelly said. The agency has already created a list of people prioritized for help.

Clasen-Kelly was part of a group that went out for a survey and outreach effort Wednesday night and encountered 60 people, 42 percent of them within one block of Trade and Tryon.

Three-quarters reported being homeless one year or longer, though at least two were spending their first night on the street, she said.

One was a young man in his late 20s and the other was Gwendolyn Andrews. However, in Andrews’ case there was a reprieve.

Deronda Metz, director of the Salvation Army Center of Hope, was part of the outreach team Wednesday and she was so touched by Andrews’ story that she made some calls and flagged a police car to take her to the women’s shelter.

There was no bed available for Andrews to sleep in, because of overcrowding, Metz said. “But at least she can sit in a chair in the lobby. That’s better than being on the street.”