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Personality crisis: As DNC nears, city remains in denial about homeless 

Charlotte is suffering from mass schizophrenia.

On one hand, we are the Shiny Penny of the South, getting all gussied up for our dance with the Democratic National Convention. In the Uptown area, we have brand-new museums, chic restaurants, an arena, a stadium, cookie-cutter condos, massive corporate headquarters, beautiful historic churches, and green spaces for workers and dwellers to enjoy on nice days.

Flip that penny over and things aren't so pretty. No matter how hard the city has tried — and when I say "the city," I'm talking about all of us — we have failed entire communities of people who remain stigmatized, criminalized and dismissed as unimportant. Gentrification surrounding Uptown has torn communities apart, destroyed affordable housing, and forced many into homelessness.

According to the Vulnerability Index published by Common Ground for the Community in March 2010, there were 807 chronic homeless people in Mecklenburg County. Of those, 388 (48 percent, which is higher than the national average of 42 percent) had health conditions associated with a high mortality rate. A full 84 percent were multi-diagnosed with mental illness and chemical dependency. At the time of the survey, 15 percent were veterans. That number may be much higher today, as soldiers return home. Lest we think racism is not a factor, the statistics say otherwise: 73.5 percent of the chronic homeless community is African-American.

I worked for the Charlotte Mecklenburg Fighting Back Program for 10 years. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, with Mecklenburg County, had funded the project to address issues and disparities related to the use of illegal drugs and alcohol. Our work was generally directed by the stated needs of the neighborhoods. My outreach focused on major street corridors and the needs of individual citizens, whom neighborhood activists would bring to me for assistance.

The people referred to me represented major systemic problems for the county: chemical dependency, HIV and other health issues. Working in the field, I was awarded the opportunity to meet many of Charlotte's homeless citizens. As I got to know these people and became familiar with their social network, I began to see more clearly the obstacles they face, not the least of which are stigma, stereotyping and that ever-popular slogan that people who don't have a clue tell the homeless: "Get a job."

Homelessness does not happen in a vacuum. It is a complex social issue highlighting the failure of many systems that are supposed to meet the needs of citizens: mental health, health care, housing and chemical dependency. These resources are either nonexistent or inaccessible to people without employment (or a livable wage), health insurance or reliable transportation.

There have been significant recent improvements. For one, St. Peter's Homes, which develops housing for the long-term homeless, is preparing to open new units in the Elizabeth neighborhood. Another long-term complex, Moore Place, recently opened off Graham Street in North Charlotte.

Sadly, homeowners' reactions at a January meeting in Elizabeth made my head explode. People expressed concerns about drug use and criminal activity, and used descriptions like, "a haven for the homeless." We're talking about human beings, not packs of coyotes.

The residents of the proposed housing in Elizabeth will be drug-tested, have national criminal background checks, and be monitored by onsite security. That's more watchful eyes than Elizabeth homeowners have on them. And what about human and constitutional rights? One neighbor suggested the residents not be allowed into a city park during school hours. Are homeowners not allowed in the park during school hours? Are the children at the nearby school not supervised? Short of turning Elizabeth into Gitmo, one can't do more in terms of security than what St. Peter's Homes already does.

When St. Peter's opened McCreesh Place on North Davidson Street, Fighting Back was asked to help. But there was nothing for us to do. McCreesh Place had covered everything from disallowing loitering to encouraging participation in neighborhood activities.

The way I see it, Charlotteans have two choices: 1) act as a responsible community by supporting programs and resources, or 2) succumb to stereotypes and fear. If we choose the second option, there won't be enough buses and trains in the entire state to haul away the homeless if the Republican National Convention ever comes to town. C

Michele Bennington is a community activist. She encourages citizens to get involved with the Urban Ministry, www.urbanministrycenter.org Image credit: WFAE

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