After Mecklenburg County officials cleared the uptown tent encampment to address a growing rat infestation, local leaders repeated a similar message: Housing, not temporary shelter, is the ultimate goal for those displaced.
Officials for the county, which issued an imminent hazard order to clear the camp last month, have repeatedly said addressing homelessness is a “community issue” that should include local government, nonprofits and businesses. More than 200 residents of the camps moved into hotels the county is providing with federal funding, initially for 90 days.
County officials have not yet shared details on those plans but have offered a glimpse into possible solutions, including turning underused hotels into permanent housing or exploring small-space dwellings often known as tiny houses. Both have been used elsewhere as an approach to curb homelessness, and can offer a window into how they may be used in Mecklenburg.
For many living in the tent encampment, the barriers to finding housing are more than just affording rent and a security deposit.
The number of people who are chronically homeless — which the county defines as homeless for at least a year or four or more episodes of homelessness in three years — is increasing in Mecklenburg, from 390 in June 2020 to 529 in January.
Many more people are experiencing homelessness for a shorter time.
County data shows more than 3,000 people are in sheltered or unsheltered homelessness as of January, a number that does not include other unstable housing situations like living in motels or “doubled up” with friends or family.
People living in the encampment represent some of the most vulnerable of the county’s homeless residents.
Those who spoke to the Observer during the move-out effort last month said there are a long list of reasons people struggle to find and stay in housing, including unmet mental health needs, blemishes on rental and credit histories, criminal records and the overall stigma of being homeless.
“Landlords, they don’t want to hear that you’re homeless,” said Tia, a 50-year-old woman who had been living in the camps for more than a year. She asked to be identified only by her first name because she feared losing a job at a packing and shipping company she’d gotten three months earlier.
“I’ve tried to be honest and upfront,” she said. “They just look at you from a different angle once you tell them you’re living in a homeless camp.”
County Manager Dena Diorio has encouraged area landlords to rent to more people leaving the camps.
The most immediate efforts hinge around finding people individual placements, either with private landlords or various programs that provide housing for low-income households.
In 2019, commissioners allocated $6.3 million to create MeckHOME, a rental subsidy program in partnership with Roof Above, the Salvation Army, youth-focused nonprofit The Relatives and the Foundation for the Carolinas.
The program, which was expected to serve 900 people over four years, aims to bridge the gap between what people can afford and area rents while getting them out of shelters.
It also offers the option of master leases, where organizations can sign on to the lease as a guarantor, which can ease landlord concerns if a tenant has a previous eviction or credit issue that could otherwise disqualify them.
To date the program has housed 288 people, 158 of them children, according to county data.
Other solutions could involve more financial investment and collaboration with other groups, and could stem from examples in other cities and states, or by growing programs already underway in Mecklenburg.
Hotels and supportive housing
As the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on travel and threatened the housing stability of thousands, a possible solution for both problems arose by converting hotels into housing.
Hotel rooms have already been a key component locally to addressing homelessness during the pandemic, including as a response to outbreaks at area shelters as well as housing people after the tent encampment closure.
Stacy Lowry, director of community support services for the county, shared with commissioners on Tuesday similar efforts in other states including “Project RoomKey,” which launched in California at the beginning of the pandemic. The program provides hotel rooms for people to decrease crowding in congregate living settings like shelters or who are living outdoors.
The effort, Lowry said, has served 22,000 Californians since the beginning of the pandemic. Now, states like California and Oregon are looking to buy hotels to create permanent housing.
“Converting vacant and underutilized hotels to permanent housing can provide communities a cost effective way to scale affordable mixed income housing solutions while also supporting the local economy,” she said.
Locally, Roof Above is already pursuing a similar plan. It purchased a hotel in southwest Charlotte last year and plans to convert the rooms into 88 studio apartments for people who are chronically homeless. It will also provide case management and other services to help people stay housed.
Lowry said if commissioners are interested in pursuing a hotel purchase, they would need to consider potential limitations, including cost, how quickly rooms could be converted to apartments, and how many people could be served.
If county leaders pursue a hotel purchase, it could follow a supportive housing model similar to Roof Above’s, and the county’s “housing first” initiative.
The principle of “housing first” works a lot like how it sounds: get people housed first, then surround them with services such as mental health and addiction treatment, and identify if they qualify for any public benefits.
The model was piloted locally by Roof Above’s Moore Place, which opened in 2012, and has now housed more than 1,000 people through several agencies and nonprofits, according to a recent report by UNC Charlotte.
The model has been shown to reduce hospital stays and arrests, according to UNCC researchers, but also increased surveyed residents’ reported quality of life. Local implementation of these programs still have room to improve, the research also showed.
While many quality of life metrics increased for residents of these programs, researchers found an increase in food insecurity, potentially because of lack of transportation or easy access to grocery stores once they moved into housing.
What about tiny homes?
During recent media briefings about the encampment, Diorio mentioned the possibility of “tiny houses,” but has not shared further details, including whether county officials are considering those for temporary shelter or permanent housing.
It could look something like the prototypes developed by Charlotte-area builder Kris Axhoj, who says his “safe shelter” model offers one response to what many have dubbed “tent city.”
Axhoj also recently worked with the Home Again Foundation to build eight cottages with recycled materials for permanent housing in north Charlotte for low-income families.
Designs on the Axhoj Enterprise website show 64 square-foot structures with a bed, storage and desk, as well as nearby bathroom and shower facilities.
The small shelters are meant to be a temporary place for people while searching for other options that could be placed together and combined with social services. But Axhoj said he’s also working on plans for larger dwellings that could be permanent housing.
Among the roadblocks are local zoning codes, which regulate the size and other regulations to be considered compliant, including at least 70 square feet of living space required by the City of Charlotte. The regulations are meant to ensure people have safe and sufficient space to live, but Axhoj said they can be too restrictive for creative solutions.
“We can build tomorrow, right here, a solution,” he said. “But we have to get the paperwork to catch up with our technology of what we want to implement. That’s what the problem is, this paperwork.”