Grassroots groups fight for a seat at the table amid city’s homelessness crisis

Grassroots groups fight for a seat at the table amid city’s homelessness crisis

Greg Jackson of Heal Charlotte. Photo: Danielle Chemtob/Axios

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Greg Jackson’s face brightens as he smiles at the baby in the stroller in front of him.

The child and her mother, recently on the verge of homelessness, are among the nearly 30 families that Jackson’s organization Heal Charlotte has housed in the last year at the Baymont by Wyndham in the University area.

He started the program at the hotel during COVID-19, where he pays for people’s rooms for a period of time and helps them build up their finances.

Jackson said yes to helping the mother and child.

But lately, he’s had to say “no” a lot more as his organization’s money dwindles and he’s been shut out of government funds.

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  • Families in Jackson’s program left the hotel in June. Of the people he assisted, 60% have since moved into permanent homes.
  • He has started moving people back in on a case-by-case basis as he acquires the funding to pay their rent.

Saying no is the part that’s heartbreaking because each time, that’s one more family that will remain homeless. Heartbreaking, because it begs the question: how many more times will people try to get help before giving up.

The frustration is Jackson knows he could help those families. But he believes a system that is not adequately set up to benefit grassroots organizations like his is getting in the way.

Why it matters: Many small nonprofits like Jackson’s struggle for a seat at the table in a city that has long had its gatekeepers.

  • The “Charlotte Way,” as it has become known, is to have a small group of business, government and philanthropic leaders that makes decisions on some of the city’s biggest issues.
  • It’s long frustrated artists and small-business owners, and despite lots of efforts to bust it up — including even several by those who have held the power — the “Charlotte Way” perception persists.

At one point during his rehousing drought, Jackson turned his phone off. He couldn’t say no anymore.

  • “It’s a heavy burden to have, to know that you can help, but you can’t,” he said.

What’s happening: As much as Jackson wants to grow his organization and benefit more people, he’s still limited by a lack of resources, despite being featured on national news, and receiving support from across the U.S.

Earlier this year, he said Mecklenburg County approached him to host 40 families from the former “tent city” encampment in his program.

  • In February the county ordered residents to leave the camp that sprung up along I-277, citing a rat infestation. They moved 214 former residents to two hotels, but the leases on those expired last month.
  • Of the 214 people, 38 have been placed into permanent homes, according to the latest figures from the county.

Motel residents in Jackson’s program are required to take a financial literacy course through Common Wealth Charlotte. According to Jackson, the county decided not to work with him because it didn’t want to require financial literacy courses for people from tent city.

Instead, the county is partnering with Roof Above, Catholic Charities and Block Love Charlotte to put the remaining residents in hotels while they search for permanent housing.

The other side: Mecklenburg County declined to comment on the specifics of the decision not to fund Heal Charlotte.

  • The county considered a variety of options when choosing how to support former tent city residents as they transitioned to permanent housing, Karen Pelletier, director of housing innovation, strategy and alignment with the county’s Community Support Services, said in a statement provided to Axios. 

“We were fortunate that existing agencies who were already connected to the guests and had access to housing resources agreed to continue to work with the guests,” she wrote. “These existing agencies continue to support guests while they help them identify and secure permanent housing.”

tent city, Charlotte, July 2020

The tent city encampment in July 2020.

The clearing of tent city and relocation of residents have involved some grassroots groups, though.

Joe Davis is the founder and board chairperson of the Hearts Beat as One Foundation, one of the organizations the county contracted with. The foundation’s volunteers staffed a hotel where residents were relocated.

  • Though there can be red tape around government funds, the opportunities exist for groups like his, he says.
  • “There is so much room in this space, there are so many people that need help, that I don’t really see any barriers to being part of the solution,” Davis tells me.

Deborah Woolard, executive director of Block Love Charlotte, said the encampment situation allowed grassroots organizations to have a voice, because they were the ones on the ground.

  • “There was no other way for them to be able to do what they’ve done without having the correct people at that table,” she tells me.
  • But she says, there’s still a long way to go, especially when the gatekeepers of funding are often not the ones in the community. “We’re out there every day,” she said. “But where have you all been?”

Yes, but: With roughly 17% of the tent city residents who originally moved into hotels housed, it’s clear to Jackson that the county’s strategy isn’t working.

But instead of partnering with new organizations that have innovative ideas, he believes leaders are taking the same ineffective approaches.

  • “We can’t be held captive to business as usual and the way Charlotte does things,” Jackson said. “And we have to be approachable to new organizations that have new ideas and new ways of making an impact in this city.”

    Johnny Roberts is one person whose life was changed by Heal Charlotte.

    Roberts, a 56-year-old concrete finisher, was working on a cell phone tower in north Charlotte when his drill twisted and he broke his wrist.

    • He couldn’t work for eight weeks because of the injury.
    • Facing the threat of eviction, he moved out of his apartment, and checked into a hotel.

    But the cost of staying in hotels for months added up, and he was running out of money. He wound up staying in tent city for two months.

    • He tried to ask Roof Above for help, but he said they offered him a bus ticket back to New York, where he hasn’t lived in several years. (Roof Above says it has a program that reimburses people for travel to another location, if they want it, where they might have family or another housing option).

    Finally, a friend told Roberts about Heal Charlotte’s program, where his stay was covered while he got back on his feet.

    Roberts now lives with his nephew, who is disabled, and helps support him. None of that would have been possible without Jackson, he said, and he can’t understand why other organizations receive resources, but Heal Charlotte doesn’t.

    • He do not do like some of these programs — help you for a minute, and then leave you by the wayside,” he said. “I seen people that went through these programs in Charlotte. They back on the streets.”

    Between the lines: Jackson received about $70,000 in CARES funding from the city of Charlotte that he’s grateful for. But it came in the form of a reimbursement several months later, which is difficult for a small nonprofit.

    • “It’s a system that grassroots organizations can’t afford,” he said.

    What’s next: More than a year ago, Jackson launched a campaign to raise $10 million to buy a hotel and convert it into transitional housing and a community campus.

    Heal Charlotte campus rendering

    A rendering of the potential Heal Charlotte campus.

    • He’s raised more than $200,000 so far. The owners of the Baymont, where he has a block of 20 rooms, are willing to sell to Heal Charlotte for $6.5 million, Jackson says.
    • Now, the organization is deciding whether to sign a master lease with the hotel for a year, which is in closer reach financially for the organization than a purchase.

    These are the sacrifices that a small nonprofit has to consider. Large entities, Jackson says, don’t have their voicemail box filling up with people they can’t afford to help.

    Still, the people who Jackson can aid, like Johnny Roberts, keep him from giving up.

    • “The results are what keep you moving,” he said. “Because with those results, you have a bigger vision that can happen.”

    Note: This story was updated to clarify Heal Charlotte’s relationship with the county and Common Wealth Charlotte.

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