The only Charlotte shelter solely dedicated to shielding homeless men from freezing temperatures held few charms. It was an aging, decrepit building on West Fourth Street whose sole bathroom, shared by as many as 200 men, was often flooded. At times, the building's stench overwhelmed even those who are most accustomed to making do.
"It was just like a dog pound," Stephen Clinton, 55, recalled during a soup kitchen lunch recently. "It was better than being outside, but other than that, it was terrible."
So why aren't people universally celebrating the Emergency Winter Shelter's move from West Fourth Street to a renovated, better-equipped warehouse? For one thing, the downtown facility's pending relocation three miles north to a Statesville Avenue warehouse has some homeless men worried how they'll get there. The move also has reinforced the beliefs of at least a few homeless folks that civic leaders don't want them disturbing Charlotte's grab for elusive world-class city status.
"They figure, out of sight, out of mind," mused 37-year-old Joseph Robinson, also at the soup kitchen.
But homeless advocates say the 10,000-square-foot, north Charlotte warehouse is the best building in the best available location they could find after scouting several sites. "Have you priced downtown real estate lately?" asked Chris Wolf, director of A Way Home.
"The Fourth Street site we had was barely habitable," Wolf added. "It would have been nice to have (the new facility) maybe a little closer to downtown, but it's going to be nice to have a decent place for the men to sleep and to take a shower. And it's going to be a whole lot more hospitable."
The old winter shelter opened after three homeless men froze to death on Charlotte streets in 1981. Organizers knew for years that Mecklenburg County intended to demolish the building, but they also realized the county didn't have the money to develop the site. That, and support from a few officials, worked to the homeless advocates' advantage until the county told them a year ago it was time to move, said the Rev. Bill Jeffries, president of the shelter's board of directors and senior associate pastor at Providence United Methodist Church. The shelter's building was finally scheduled to be torn down and the land used as part of a large downtown park.
That eight-plus acre park will be bounded by Second, Fourth, Mint and Graham streets and opened in 2007. It may be named for Romare Bearden, a renowned Charlotte-born artist who died in 1988.
Mecklenburg County general manager Bobbie Shields said he hadn't heard anyone complain about the old emergency shelter's downtown location, although word on the street has long claimed that businesses including Johnson & Wales University, which is down the street from the shelter, wanted a change. That perception is wrong, said Melinda Law, public relations director for Johnson & Wales, which opened in September 2004. She said the university had known the shelter would be relocating but hadn't participated in the discussion. "We're too new," she said.
The new shelter, meanwhile, is expected to open by November, though supporters are still searching for donations for the $1.46 million project, Wolf said. Unlike the old building, the new shelter will have showers and actual tables where men can eat dinner and have a light breakfast. (At the old site, the men ate where they could.) The city's Housing Trust Fund has provided $500,000, and religious groups also have donated money, Wolf said. Corporation donations have been slower.
Wolf admits some of the new shelter's neighbors aren't crazy about the idea. "It's change," he said. "There are people who would rather we put it somewhere else. That's just human nature." But he hopes the shelter can be used to the neighborhood's advantage in warmer months. "I think if you did the same story in a year, people are going to say it's worked out."
Still, some homeless men are afraid that some people will not be able to make it to the new location. "There's going to be a lot of people not going out there. Not walking," said Eddie Richardson, 35. "That's not going to work."
Others said the new location was a good idea. "It really doesn't matter as long as the homeless have a place to stay," said Vincent Cooper, 48. "It's got to be somewhere."
Buses stop in front of the warehouse, but some people have worried homeless men might not be able to cough up bus fare, which increases to $1.20 on Oct. 3. Wolf said shelter organizers have had one meeting with Charlotte Area Transit System officials about ways to make buses affordable, such as subsidized bus passes.
"We have no idea how it's going to shake out," he said, adding that he doesn't think transportation issues will keep homeless people away. "If someone needs to use the shelters, they're going to find a way to get there. It's not that far out of town."
The emergency shelter isn't the only option on cold nights, but it can be the last hope for single men. More than 5,100 people in Mecklenburg County are homeless on any given night, according to most recent estimates. Only a small percentage is considered chronically homeless. For many, homelessness is a short-term situation triggered by an economic shock such as a job loss or healthcare costs.
Dale Mullenix, director of Urban Ministry Center, said debate over the new location reveals how people feel about shelters. "Nobody wants one near them," he said.
So how do you decide where to put one?
"It's got to be on a bus line. It's got to be convenient to people who need it," Mullenix said. "But mostly, it's got to be some place where the neighborhood won't prevent it from being."