How to help Charlotte's homeless

“They sure do feed the homeless in Charlotte,” Karla said to a group of students visiting the Queen City from Pennsylvania. Once homeless, Karla was now taking the students on a tour of uptown Charlotte to tell them about life on the street. She had come to Phifer Street on her walk, home of “the wall,” an uptown area where meals are frequently served to the homeless by various people of faith.

They might not have a place for you to sleep at night, but you sure will have a meal in this city, Karla told them.

Meal service at “the wall” has recently become controversial as police have beefed up enforcement of anti-trespassing and anti-loitering laws. The police are responding to nearby property owners, who have complained of violations such as trespassing, littering and public urination.

The police action, and the media attention that followed it, has led to fervent discussion about the right thing to do.

The issue is complicated.

Of course, the nearby property owners have a right to complain – no one wants to clean up someone else's trash or worse yet urine. No one has made this clearer to me than members of the homeless community who are upset that a few people's behavior jeopardizes the availability of meals for everyone.

The county's property, on which “the wall” stands, will soon be sold to private developers. The sale will allow the county to gradually phase out of the property, and within three years the wall will no longer exist.

Certainly an alternate location can be found, but the symbolism of being pushed out of uptown is not lost on the homeless. First St. Peter's Soup Kitchen was moved outside the Interstate 277 loop, then the Emergency Winter Shelter, and now the wall is threatened.

Charlotte short on shelter

After much thought, here is what I realized: The issue is not about food, but shelter. Ms. Eva Walker, who has served a meal at the wall each Friday night for the last several years, estimates that while she serves 200-250 people during summer months, the number drops to 50-75 during the winter.

The difference? During winter months, two additional shelter programs are available. Both programs provide dinner for the guests.

Compared to other cities our size, Charlotte has a severe lack of emergency shelter beds. This means more homeless end up on the street and depend on various faith groups that provide meals at “the wall.” With more supportive housing and more shelter, the crowds at “the wall” would be much smaller, making it easier to manage issues such a littering or trespassing.

Last month the federal government released encouraging data: For the second year in a row, chronic homelessness has decreased. According to a national study, there are over 31,000 fewer long-term homeless individuals in America.

But if one looks around Charlotte's streets, these numbers are hard to believe. Local shelters and service centers have not experienced the same decrease seen around the nation.

This should not surprise us. Other cities have invested more money and energy in providing permanent housing combined with supportive services, such as health care and employment assistance. In Denver, 359 supportive housing units have been created; in Portland, Oregon, 660; in New York City, well over 5,000.

Why not in Charlotte? While our City Council and county commissioners have adopted our local 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness, they have not put financial resources or made a firm commitment to implementing the plan, which calls for housing for 500 chronically homeless individuals.

In a few years, when Karla is touring another church group around the city, I hope she does not have to focus on free meals. She should be talking about how we provide people the housing they need.