Uncovering the Nuance Underlying Charlotte’s Most Prominent Homeless Encampment 

Joe DeMartin (he/him) ‘21

The COVID-19 pandemic has radically changed our perception of home. Working from home, stay-at-home orders — home was where many of us felt safe in a world gripped by a deadly disease. But what about those who had no home to lock down in, no home where they could feel safe? 

Homelessness beset the city of Charlotte long before the COVID-19 pandemic, but COVID hasn’t improved the situation. According to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Housing and Homelessness Dashboard, there are currently 3,456 people experiencing homelessness. This number is a nearly 40% increase from 2,490 people in March of last year. While Black/African American folks constitute 31% of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg population, they make up over three quarters of the people experiencing homelessness. While these statistics and data provide important context in and of themselves, they don’t tell a complete story.   

Liz Clasen-Kelly ‘00, a Davidson religion major, has worked for over 20 years to combat homelessness in Charlotte. She currently works for an organization called Roof Above. Clasen-Kelly started her work with the homeless community in Charlotte in 1997 when she interned at Charlotte’s Urban Ministry Center — an organization now merged with Roof Above — through Davidson’s Chaplain’s Office. She recalled that the experience was revelatory: “I had never worked with people experiencing homelessness. And it was a very profound experience in terms of finding my own humanity, experiencing such a range of human emotion.” 

Twenty-four years later, Clasen-Kelly found Charlotte’s most prominent homeless encampment right outside her door. Tent City was in Charlotte’s North End on 12th Street right outside of the Urban Ministry Center. But where did it come from? 

Beginning last March, COVID-19 closures and restrictions presented Charlotte’s homeless communities with intense uncertainty. The instability inherent in a global pandemic is compounded when one also has nowhere to shelter in place. Even if space in shelters was available, Clasen-Kelly explained, “We also saw people fearful of coming into shelters, due to the pandemic […] And in many ways that was a rational fear. There never was a COVID outbreak in the encampment. But I think every single congregate living place in town, all of the shelters, had an outbreak, at least at one point last year.” 

Additionally, many people experiencing homelessness faced difficulties with mobility, as the stay-at-home order reduced the availability of public transportation. Evan Bille ‘20 is a Davidson Impact Fellow working with Clasen-Kelly at Roof Above. He works the front doors of the Urban Ministry Center engaging with those experiencing homelessness who come for basic needs like showers, public internet connection, or mail services. He explains that “People were afraid that they wouldn’t have access to their services […] people were afraid that they wouldn’t be able to get to our campuses. And so that’s why they moved.” 

Along with COVID-19 restrictions came CDC guidelines for police departments. As Bille explains, “The CDC issued guidance that said that clearing of homeless encampments would potentially cause greater community spread. So the directive that was sent out to law enforcement and city governments across the country was that you do not clear tent encampments during this pandemic.” Because Charlotte Police largely followed these guidelines, an encampment as large as Tent City was able to form in an extremely visible space. 

Tent City does not have a monocausal explanation. It represented a confluence of several factors: a slight reduction in shelter capacity, fear of catching COVID in shelters, public transportation insecurity, and CDC order restricting the clearing of tent encampments. COVID did not create a crisis of homelessness; it made it more visible.

So often during this pandemic we have the tendency to use COVID as a one-size-fits-all explanation. It’s clean. It’s neat. COVID provides an easy explanation that requires no reflection on and no interrogation of structural issues plaguing our society. COVID has created problems to be sure. But it also acts as a magnifying glass, enlarging our society’s failures, making them more visible. 

I think Tent City illustrates this problem in a profound way, but it also illustrates the solution: community.  

Once Tent City was established, Clasen-Kelly, Bille, and Roof Above faced a decision: how could they best provide resources for these people in need? What drove their strategy now was relying on a key aspect of their mission: formation of community. Their engagement team would normally search out and travel to these encampments, but this one came to them. They met the community where they were, formed relationships with the residents, helped some of them find more stable housing options, and overall treated people as people. 

Roof Above intentionally chooses to call people experiencing homelessness their “neighbor.” “Homelessness is so linked with this inability to recognize our neighbor, and the fullness of their humanity,” Clasen-Kelly commented to me. Homelesness not a problem that can be solved with stats or data alone. It requires listening to stories and engaging in our community.

In addition to forming a community in Tent City, Roof Above partnered with grassroots organizations like Feed the Movement Charlotte to educate the broader Charlotte community about the tent encampment with FAQs posted on their website. 

Then suddenly, after nearly a year of hard work, Mecklenburg County issued an abatement order which ordered residents of Tent City to clear the area. “It was very shocking,” Clasen-Kelly recalled. She remembered thinking that it was “not feasible that people would leave and that would happen humanely in a supportive way within 72 hours.” Bille remembered hearing about it on the 6:00 news: “There was a sense of shock, but then the next step was every single person showing up to work the next day ready to do their job.”

The residents of Tent City were moved to temporary housing in hotels for 90 days — we’re about halfway through that window now. With the help of county, city, and non-governmental and grassroots organizations, the process went relatively smoothly. But that temporary housing means that the work is not done providing for our neighbors. 

According to Clasen-Kelly Davidson students have an obligation to act: “You can’t untangle the realities of homelessness and the realities of prosperity. So you really can’t untangle the realities of Davidson and the realities of homelessness. The more you do this work, the more you recognize the connectedness of these experiences, and the connectedness of humanity.”

 Bille encourages students to “understand and learn about the groups who are already on the ground doing work, and who are connected to the linear community.” Provide folks who need resources with resources. Feed the Movement Charlotte, for example, is experiencing an extraordinary lack of resources and facing extraordinary need. 

Clasen-Kelly made it clear that the situation is urgent: “It’s so critical that we don’t relax, that we don’t use language like ‘return to the normal,’ because we can’t go back to accepting the reality of homelessness. The outrage that the community felt over this last year, we have to carry that forward and create lasting, impactful housing solutions.”