Photos by Nick Pironio
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CHARLOTTE – Prince Nicholson sat in the fellowship hall of A Mighty Fortress Lutheran Church in northwest Charlotte, watching the football game, just hanging out for the evening.
Underemployed, making minimum wage at a part-time job, he said he had a place to live, but not for long if he couldn't get a job that paid better.
“I got a little piece of a job,” he said, “but it's not making ends meet.”
Nicholson and three other men took were staying at A Mighty Fortress because the congregation participated in the Room at the Inn program, where churches open their doors to homeless people and housing-endangered people during the winter months.
But this week, for the Democratic National Convention, churches across Charlotte opened their doors to help those displaced from hotels, motels and the streets in uptown themselves.
City and county officials said that homeless people wouldn't be shipped out of town for the DNC. But for security reasons, the homeless also couldn't stay in uptown either.
Families who were staying in long-term motels were also getting priced out of their rooms as delegates began streaming into town.
“Our initial response was to help families, so the children could stay in school during the week,” said Paul Hanneman, program director at Urban Ministries of Charlotte.
Working with the Salvation Army, A Child's Place and Charlotte Family Housing, the groups came up with a three-pronged strategy to make sure people had a place to stay.
“The larger problem was we had more people who needed a place to stay than we had beds,” said Hanneman.
A call was put out to Charlotte congregations and donations came in to a #20,000 fund to help pay the different between normal motel rates and convention rates to keep families from being displaced. The Salvation Army opened up 10 more rooms for people to stay during the week.
Working with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, they arranged for buses to pick children up at the Salvation Army so kids could stay in school.
Mecklenburg County opened up its homeless resource center on College Street for extended hours this week, offering folks a place to hang out in uptown if they felt displaced. The center had meals, TVs, game tables and
Homeless Service Director Peter Safir said he predicted the need for displaced people would be "a small bump" for the DNC, not a full-blown crisis, and so far, that's what it's been.
"The questions we keep getting are where are we hiding the homeless or where are we showing them off," said Safir. "We are absolutely not doing either. I see a lot of familiar faces in the center. We don't track them. They come and go as they please, but it's a support to them, so they have a place to go."
Then, the city's churches activated their Rooms at the Inn.
John Johnson, and his wife Sharon, opened the Room at A Mighty Fortress. They drove down to Urban Ministry to pick up folks needing a place to stay. In the back of the fellowship building, the church set up mattresses on the floor for six men, but only four men showed up.
Prince Nicholson volunteered to talk, two others didn't want to talk about their, and one man was already asleep.
On a fold-out table were homemade desserts and couple of boxes of Dunkin' Donuts – “the only thing that wasn't homemade,” John said.
John didn't mince words about the situation.
“They were displaced,” he said. “Let's call a spade a spade and a shoulder a shoulder.”
John heads up the Room at the End program at A Mighty Fortress Lutheran, which has a congregation of about 150 people.
“That mean, on any given Sunday, you have about 70 or 80 people in the pews,” he said, “and a core group of volunteers of about 30 people.”
John got the word for help from Hanneman the last week in August.
“I stood in front of the congregation and said I normally give you way more lead time. Today, I need an answer now,” he said. “And, to the man, of course we're going to do it.”
They passed around a hand-written list for people to sign up to bring food. John and Sharon volunteered to stay overnight.
Usually, the Rooms at the End doing open until winter, to keep homeless folks off the streets in the cold. A Mighty Fortress could only open their doors one day a week, and they did just that Wednesday.
“It's a program we've been involved with for a long time,” said John. “It all just fell together.”
Nicholson got word of Rooms at the Inn through bulletin boards at the Urban Ministry and said he was “taking a vacation” from the crowds in uptown.
“There's trouble down there, too many police all running around the neighborhood,” he said. “Let's get away for a while, go somewhere where you stay out of trouble, out of their way for while.”
He said he eats, sleeps, watches TV and get peace of mind at the Room in the Inn.
“Think about what you can do next,” Nicholson said. “Right now, I'm gonna look for a better job, about all I can do. Ain't choicin' right now.”
Whatever he can find, Nicholson said, whatever he can find.
Hanneman said he's thrilled with the response.
“It's been an extraordinary effort by all,” he said. “We've proved that the public and private sector can work together in response to an emergency situation. This could have been caused by Super Bowl or any other big event.”
The larger issue, though, is fighting chronic homelessness in Charlotte.
Emergency sheltering is easy, and the city's support organizations seem to have that settled. But finding economic support for those who are homeless – either permanently or due to a bad situation – is a more difficult challenge to tackle.
“Housing is the issue and the solution,” he said. “[Housing is] even proving to be a far more cost-effective than anything else. We're going to make of a case of that, try to woo the community toward a permanent solution.”
Hanneman even went so far as to say that chronic homelessness could be ended in Charlotte, if the community rallies together.
“That doesn't mean we're going to end homelessness, situational homelessness will be there, but we can help get people along to economic stability,” he said.
Follow Ben McNeely on Twitter at @benmcneely for behind-the-scenes views of the Democratic National Convention this week, and follow all of News 14 Carolina social media coverage this week here.