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Rags Amid Riches 

Charlotte's homeless problem isn't sexy, but it's real

By 11 a.m., dozens of folks have gathered outside the Urban Ministry Center, just a block or so from the downtown loop. They're here to get a meal, maybe see a nurse or wrangle a bus pass. Mostly male, mostly black and largely living on the street – or in a shelter like the one a quarter-mile away – they form a ragged line that wraps around the Center's 18-month-old building.

"This is my home," mutters a 68-year-old man, hunched on a bench. He declines to give his name. "Been all over the world. I hate the day I came back."

His voice trails off: "Ain't nothing here ..."

Lots of folks in Charlotte, rich and poor, might harbor similar distaste for the city. Many of us know people who feel the same way: recent transplants, unaccustomed to the city; old-timers, fed up with growth and looking for a way out. We may even feel that way ourselves.

But this man isn't dreaming of moving on to bigger and better.

Having worked since age 13, he says, he's tired and most likely settled here, quietly collecting Social Security and hoping someone at the Center can help him find housing.

Hate it or not, Charlotte is his home -- whether that home is in the street or not.

But people won't be boarding buses to march for individuals like him the way they have for the individuals christened the Jena 6 or the war in Iraq. Outrage, it seems, has an expiration date. And the sell-by date for homelessness has long since passed.

As city reputations go, one of the worst insults thrown Charlotte's way is that it's sterile. Comfortable, but boring. Economically depressed, however, isn't a descriptor you often hear. We have what is ostensibly a booming downtown, an economy buttressed by two of the biggest banks in the United States, and condos that have spread -- often in what formerly were low-income blocks -- across the city like kudzu. Worries to the contrary aside, the real estate market remains relatively solid, so that Charlotte has largely escaped the softening real estate market that's freaking out much of the United States.

This prosperity has brought businesses that just a decade ago probably wouldn't have thought of moving near Uptown. Target opened a store this month off Kings Drive. A Trader Joe's, that purveyor of specialty foods and Two Buck Chuck, also opened locally. But not everybody enjoys this progress.

Between 1970 and 1980, Uptown Charlotte's population shrank substantially, from 9,104 people to 5,808 people, according to an analysis of U.S. Census data by The Brookings Institution, a public policy think tank in Washington, D.C. For years, Uptown was the province of mostly poor, mostly black folks, says Tom Hanchett, historian at the Levine Museum of the New South. Middle-class whites and blacks sought the suburbs. That trend since has reversed, and today Uptown is one of the hottest places to live in Charlotte.

With that allure has come higher rents, property tax bills and inevitable complaints. Bitterness remains among some people about the gentrification of areas surrounding Uptown: Wilmore, Belmont and Piedmont Courts. The latter -- a public housing complex razed last year -- was infamous for its problems, from crime to the decrepit conditions of many units.

And some homeless folks feel they're being pushed out of Uptown. The overwhelming bulk of services for homeless folks was already outside the I-277 loop in 2005, when the emergency winter shelter on West Fourth Street shut down and a new one opened three miles north on Statesville Avenue.

But business owners and Uptown residents welcome the changes. "It's a little classier now," says Fran Simmons, whose mother, Dorothy, owns Simmons Fourth Ward Restaurant, a neighborhood mainstay for nearly two decades.

The folks at Simmons have had a front-row seat to Uptown's changes. They've seen the area integrate. One of the first tenants in their building on Graham Street, they needed their share of police protection. Spaces next to the restaurant remained unfilled.

Now, former Mayor Harvey Gantt and congressman Mel Watt live in comfortable homes just blocks away. The neighborhood has a Harris Teeter and CVS. And vacancies aren't a problem. "As soon as one of the spaces gets open, it's filled," says Dorothy Simmons.

Simmons and her son are happy with the area's changes, and they don't hear much complaint from others. "We used to hear a lot about the homeless coming around," says Fran Simmons. "But even that has become scarce."

So if the homeless aren't coming around, does that mean their numbers are diminishing? Not at all. A 2006 survey of shelters, hospitals, jails and other spots indicated the number of homeless people in Mecklenburg County exceeded 3,000 -- an under count that doesn't reveal the extent of the problems. Shelters are full or near capacity, says Chris Wolf, executive director of the advocacy group A Way Home.

And homeless folks sense acutely that many people don't see the problem.

James, 46, feels the invisibility, which he attributes to greed. The way he sees it, the presence of many people gathered outside a homeless center is an enduring by-product of slavery that left generations of scars. "When you get generational abuse stemming from back generations ... abused children grow up," he says, sitting inside the Urban Ministry Center amid cafeteria-style tables. "And they usually abuse other children -- their children. And I speak from experience."

Growing up in North Carolina -- he doesn't want to say which town -- his mother was abusive ... physically and emotionally. He bears a scar on his arm from her switch. And when, as a 7-year-old, he confided that someone had molested him, she didn't want to hear it.

"There's just people that don't have no business with children," James says.

After high school, he went to college but didn't go back after his girlfriend got pregnant. Later, at community college, he trained as an electrician. He achieved, but then lost footing.

It's been a life pattern, he says: Move forward, fall back. Untreated depression left him on and off the street. He's tried medication, but he didn't like the way the pills made him feel.

His three sons have it better. One's a business type. The other two graduated from North Carolina State University and North Carolina Central University. "My kids didn't go through what I did," he states. "So they were able to excel."

James has been on the streets about two weeks now. "Temporarily." By the time this story comes out, he's supposed to be in Kentucky, working on a job that provides room and board, a per diem, and pays $6.50 an hour.

Assuming he gets paid, he should be able to take the cash and get a room on his own. He recently worked as a warehouseman in Portland, Maine, but his employers didn't transfer his money down here. "I think they done rip me off."

Even if the issue of homelessness doesn't draw the type of local fervor stirred up by a tangible, high-profile case, some Charlotteans are trying to attract attention to Mecklenburg County's housing needs. Wolf is pushing for affordable housing schemes behind the scenes. He's also planning a walk on Nov. 17, similar to the ones scheduled in cities such as Atlanta, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere, to raise awareness about the problems of homelessness.

Wolf asks, "How do we take the same moral indignation that got thousands of people down to Jena ... and get people excited here?"

Disclosure: This writer volunteers occasionally at the Urban Ministry Center.

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