CHARLOTTE — Local government and police officials traded barbs Thursday over responsibilities for executing a county order to clear Charlotte's sprawling homeless camp, while residents there attempted to pack up their belongings and leave before a Friday evening deadline.
As cold and wet weather continues to blanket the area, many people living in tents for much of the pandemic have accepted the county's offer to move temporarily into hotel rooms. But squabbles between local officials have mired execution of a plan that would remove people from the clusters of camp sites that cover several city blocks on the northern edge of uptown.
The finger pointing comes after the county issued an order late Tuesday to clear the encampment, citing the imminent danger of a growing rat infestation and related health risks.
That removal order took nearly everyone by surprise, including leaders of area homeless shelters, advocates who work directly with people in the camps and camp residents themselves.
On Thursday, County Manager Dena Diorio chastised leaders in city government and law enforcement, claiming they've failed to help with the removal process.
Her comments drew sharp rebukes from the City of Charlotte, Charlotte Fire, Mecklenburg Sheriff Garry McFadden and CMPD Chief Johnny Jennings, who in separate statements challenged Diorio's assertion that they refused or withdrew help and said they were given little notice of the order.
The back-and-forth threatens to hamper the moving process, which began under a cold rain Thursday morning and is expected to continue through Friday.
It's an abrupt end for the encampment, the most visible sign of the city's housing crisis, where the air this week held a persistent winter dampness and smelled strongly of smoke from residents burning wood and clothing to keep warm.
Accusations over help
Diorio, voicing frustration in a news conference Thursday, said the effort to clear and clean the site has been hindered by disrupted plans for transportation and security. She called out City Manager Marcus Jones for what she characterized as breaking a promise to provide transportation to hotel rooms for people forced out of the camps.
"I was very surprised and quite frankly very disappointed," Diorio said, adding that Jones had agreed to provide bus transportation but then backed out in a disagreement over who the drivers would be and security measures in place.
Diorio said Mecklenburg officials are working out alternative transportation to the hotel, including the possibility of using taxis or other smaller vehicles. About 180 people have expressed interest in moving into a hotel room, county officials said.
An Observer photojournalist at the camps Thursday morning witnessed smaller buses taking people in small groups, sometimes just a few people at a time.
Diorio also accused Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police and the Mecklenburg County Sheriff's Office of "refusing" to provide enforcement of the order when the deadline arrives Friday.
"We have asked the county how they intend to address people who refuse to leave the encampments, and they have yet to provide any solution to that outside of asking law enforcement to physically remove those individuals," Charlotte spokesman Cory Burkarth wrote.
"The people in the encampments are not criminals and we do not believe they should be treated as such."
'Why didn't we know?'
Amid the political infighting, questions remain about how leaders will adequately address departing residents' long term needs and if the effort to clear the camps will lead to permanent housing solutions.
No one at the camps who spoke to the Observer disputed that rats are a distressing problem, or the piles of debris that attract them. But many wondered, noting that the conditions at the camps were no secret to anyone paying attention, why the process was so rushed.
County officials have defended the deadline, citing the urgent, critical health threat posed by rats and the diseases they may carry.
When Mecklenburg Health Director Gibbie Harris briefed county commissioners Tuesday night — before most living in the camps knew about the order — Harris said she would have evacuated the area in 24 hours if it were possible.
Information about services offered slowly made its way through the camps Wednesday, when Observer journalists spoke with more than a dozen residents and volunteers there. Some said they were frustrated it seemed like residents were the last to know about the order.
"Why didn't we know about this when the rat infestation started?" wondered Jazmine Jones, 29, who has lived at the camps since September.
"Why don't people come out and say, 'We're thinking about having to tell y'all to move," Jones said. "Even if you were thinking about it, at least we know that there was a chance that we would have to pack up."
County leaders have acknowledged that the hotel rooms — initially planned for 90 days — are only a temporary remedy.
Still, Jones offered cautious optimism about the prospect of a hotel room for 90 days.
"I think it's pretty helpful, but I still don't know how long it's going to take," Jones said. "They're not going to fund and sustain it forever."
Others worried if their neighbors who were working or otherwise away from their tent would get sufficient information. Chris Arnold, 24, and Hannah Poore, 21, were out buying propane to keep themselves warm when initial notices went out. Others they know work and are away for hours at a time.
They did ultimately speak with someone working with the relocation effort, who handed them a checklist of conditions to stay in the hotels, including agreeing to meet curfews, not use alcohol or drugs and not cook in the rooms because meals would be provided. County officials have promised case management, mental health and addiction services.
Those conditions are in place for the safety and security of residents, county officials said, and mirror rules for people entering more traditional shelter environments.
But the couple said that people living outside often struggle under those restrictions, whether due to behavioral health, substance use or other factors, which is part of the reason they're not in shelters already.
"I'm not seeing us, but a majority of people are gonna be kicked out (for breaking those rules)," Arnold said.
What happens Friday at 5 p.m.?
With the clock ticking, county officials could not offer a clear picture of what would happen at 5 p.m. Friday if everyone has not left. Diorio said the county will need to ask again for law enforcement help if the site isn't cleared by the deadline.
When asked Thursday if any residents there past the deadline could face legal action for not leaving, Diorio said the goal was voluntary compliance so the property can be cleaned up.
"It's not what we want, but if we can't get people to leave we'll have to wait and see how it goes," she said. "But clearly, we're going to take a very hands off approach and really try our best to try to get people to leave voluntarily."
Both Sheriff McFadden and Chief Jennings said Thursday they had gotten little information on the issue.
Jennings said his department would not "criminalize homelessness." CMPD officials earlier this week said the department would respond to the site only for 911 calls. McFadden had a similar message.
"I have been contacted regarding the encampments by more grassroots organizations and provided more details about the removal process from those organizations than any elected official," McFadden said.
Staff writers Alison Kuznitz and Amanda Zhou and visuals journalist Jeff Siner contributed to this report.