Charlotte won't hide the homeless during the DNC

Charlotte ObserverAugust 21, 2012 

CHARLOTTE, N.C. Michael Smith of Charlotte Center City Partners has heard of other cities attempting to hide the homeless during past national political conventions.

“It’s hard to tell how many of those are urban legends and how many are factual,” Smith said.

Either way, he said, it won’t be happening here during the 2012 Democratic National Convention.

No vouchers for movies or museums, no big bingo games, no bus tickets headed for anywhere but uptown – all of which has reportedly happened at other convention cities.

If anything, local agencies will beef up their staffs to help potentially confused homeless people maneuver road blocks, pedestrian restrictions and closures of popular uptown hangouts.

“The Charlotte way is to help those in need in our community, not hide them,” Smith said.

“And we have an excellent network of homeless service providers. That’s something to celebrate.”

Mecklenburg County has about 5,000 homeless, fewer than 1,000 of whom are in the city’s shelters on most nights.

The rest are in transitional housing programs or are staying with family or friends, something experts refer to as “the couch homeless.”

A relatively small number, as few as 100, are thought to be living outdoors, experts say.

DNC cities of years past have been chided for their handling of the homeless, including instances where the homeless were reportedly rounded up and arrested or forced onto buses bound for other cities.

In 2008, Denver officials went on the offensive against criticism that they were trying to hide the homeless during the DNC by creating safe indoor places for them to go during the convention.

Here in Charlotte, shelter officials say their biggest concern is making sure the homeless aren’t confused over security plans that include road blocks and pedestrian restrictions.

The Main Library is also set to close during the DNC, and the transit center will move several blocks to the other side of uptown. Both sites are popular destinations for the homeless.

On the table

Among the solutions announced or being considered:

• County officials will extend hours (8 a.m. to 8 p.m.) at the Homeless Resource Center, 618 N. College St., so the homeless displaced by the closing of the library will have a place to rest and use restrooms.

The center is typically open evenings three nights a week.

• The Salvation Army Center of Hope shelter is considering opening up its cafeteria space during the DNC so homeless women normally out doing job searches in uptown can do job training instead. Typically, women are required to be out of the shelter during the day, looking for work.

• The Men’s Shelter of Charlotte will have extra day staff during the DNC to help the homeless figure out where they can and can’t go in uptown. It will also have outreach teams walking uptown streets to help the homeless overwhelmed by crowds or confused by such things as security checkpoints that restrict backpacks, suitcases or shopping carts.

Carson Dean, executive director of the men’s shelter, said his agency will also bend its policy and allow men to stay on site during the days of the DNC if their employers have closed for the convention.

Standard shelter procedure is for men to be out during the day unless they enrolled in social services programs.

Coincidentally, Dean met with local DNC promoters shortly after the convention was announced to find out what to expect for the homeless.

“We’d heard stories of other communities offering the homeless tickets to the zoo during the DNC, and maybe it was well intentioned, but it could also be seen as a ploy to get them out of sight,” he said.

“I really liked the fact that the head of our Center City Partners (Michael Smith) told us that’s not Charlotte’s way.”

In a related issue, a group of homeless services agencies continues looking for a contingency plan should any low-income families lose temporary housing in extended-stay hotels during the DNC.

It has been estimated that the homeless population could rise by as much as 150 people a night if those hotels raise prices during the convention.

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