Community helps homeless after county doesn't open warming shelters

With temperatures dropping into the teens, concerns for the homeless and for those without heat mounted in Mecklenburg County last week.

UNC-Charlotte estimates that in 2016, there were roughly 1,500 homeless people living in Mecklenburg County. 

County policy states that warming shelters do not open until a wind chill of 10 degrees is sustained for at least 24 hours. 

The Mecklenburg County Public Information Department sent a press release on Jan. 2 when temperatures slid to almost 11 degrees stating that the Men’s Shelter of Charlotte, Salvation Army of Hope, Room in the Inn and more had to be lacking adequate bed space before additional help was offered. Another guideline to trigger the activation of warming shelters was stated to be an increase in call volume to 911 centers or an increase in calls to assistance agencies directly attributed to the cold weather. 

County Manager Dena Diorio said in a press conference Jan 3 that the county is following protocol, and that warming shelters would be opened if temperatures dipped below the wind chill the policy states.

It wasn’t until Jan. 7 that the county opened a warming shelter, but just one, and only in Charlotte.

That response was not adequate for one local Lake Norman resident and the area’s at-large county commissioner. 

Stacy Phillips, Huntersville resident and daughter of Huntersville Commissioner Danny Phillips, organized an email campaign to the county to seek that the policy be altered. 

She posted on social media, saying the homeless deserved better.

“I think it’s time for a change in Mecklenburg County,” Phillips said about why she started it. “Animal Control has no temperature limit as to when they give out straw to those in need; however, it has to be in the single digits to provide warming stations in the county for our homeless brothers and sisters.”

Phillips assisted Perfect Provisions, a nonprofit based in Monroe, in distributing coats and warming gear to those in need locally.

“I think it’s a shame that our county treats dogs better than it does humans,” she said. “I look forward to seeing this policy overhauled.”

Mecklenburg County Commissioner Pat Cotham saw Phillips’ post and contacted the county manager and her board colleagues.

“I am not pleased at all with the county policy on warming stations,” Cotham said. 

She said she hopes the policy is altered to open warming stations. 

“Surely we are better than this,” she added. 

Cotham distributed coats and hand, body and toe warmers all over the Charlotte region Tuesday night and into Wednesday, helping more than 25 people in the city alone. She encountered couples who didn’t want to be separated as well as people with pets they couldn’t leave behind. 

“They were grateful for hand warmers,” Cotham said. 

She went back out on Jan. 4 to hand out more hand warmers and chicken sandwiches. 

N.C. Rep. Chaz Beasley, whose district includes parts of Lake Norman, commended Cotham on social media, expressing his gratitude for her “raising the alarm” about the lack of open warming shelters. 

“People are literally out in the cold tonight with no place to go,” he wrote on Twitter. 

There are no available shelters in northern Mecklenburg County, a need that local organizations have spoken out for. 

Ellen Donaldson with Save Davidson has assisted domestic violence victims who needed a place to go in the northern part of the county. 

“We can build all sorts of fancy sports stadiums, but we don’t do enough for our people,” Donaldson said. 

She hopes that a shelter is planned within the next few years for the Lake Norman area and intends to campaign for one.

In the meantime, with temperatures forecasted below freezing again starting Sunday, Jan. 14, organizations like Perfect Provisions, Crisis Assistance Ministries and other churches and nonprofits are banding together to collect coats and do what they can for those in need.

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Written by Cassie Fambro, Lake Norman Herald Citizen. Article available at http://www.lakenormanpublications.com/herald_weekly/community-helps-homeless-after-county-doesn-t-open-warming-shelters/article_892d9d62-f61e-11e7-ac40-23f4f0ea1dff.html