A Hearts Beat as One volunteer works with the homeless in Uptown Charlotte, N.C.

On Tuesday, Feb. 16, Gibbie Harris, director of the Mecklenburg County Health Department, issued an order of abatement of imminent hazard for the North End Encampment at and around North Tryon and North 12th Sts. and for the area near Uptown Charlotte to be cleared by 5 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 19, citing a rat infestation.

Hearts Beat as One (HB1), known for its community work in and around the LGBTQ community immediately stepped into action. The organization was founded in 2014 by members of the Charlotte LGBTQ community and according to its website, “strives to raise funds and awareness for organizations and people based in and around the Queen City.” That broad, but love-centered mission, has led them to support youth development through the Dolly Parton Imagination Library in Charlotte, work with animal rescue services, work through Pride Support Services to provide mental health care to LGBTQ people, provide meals for those experiencing homelessness and support neighborhood community events. It has also made them nimble enough to address the emerging needs brought on by COVID-19.

Since the outbreak, HB1 has focused on a “Lunch Is On Us” program, providing meals to children who have no access to food due to school closures. Working with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, they have served around 400 children a day and provided meals to displaced restaurant workers and others in need at a cost of approximately $5,000 a week. They have also provided direct financial assistance and supported people in the community facing homelessness.

Time is Running Out

With a 72-hour deadline looming, advocates and residents petitioned a mindful solution to relocating the residents of “Tent City.” Huntersville Commissioner Stacy Phillips launched a Change.org petition. With over 2,500 signatures as of Thursday evening, the petition is addressed to Mecklenburg County Commissioners and calls on them to provide at least 30 days notification for safe relocation. It also calls for the inclusion of local non-profits who are already working with the population there and a request to honor the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines in place for encampments.

Citing the need for more time in a press conference Thursday morning, Harris stated “It was determined that this was an immediate threat that needed to be addressed right away.” According to the CDC, if individual housing options are not available for such residents, people should be allowed to remain where they are to avoid potential COVID-19 spread. “The problem is, we now have the potential for other diseases in addition to COVID at that site, and that was the reason for acting at this point,” said Harris.

The county is utilizing shelters and hotels to house approximately 200 homeless people living at the encampment site. Harris said that everyone is being tested when they leave the encampment and vaccinations are being offered to those over 65-years-old.

Since Wednesday night, members of HB1 have been mobilizing to help with the relocation process. Board members are currently serving in administrative roles in the undisclosed hotel locations throughout the city helping to ensure safety and provide access to food, healthcare and cleaning supplies. According to Joe Davis, executive director and board chair, the county and city are partnering to provide the housing and security. Volunteer non-profits are providing the rest. “HB1 will help with the transition from temporary housing to more suitable housing,” said Davis.

Davis said while some residents of the encampment did refuse to go to hotels, they have not heard of anyone being denied a room or of any reported barriers to services.

LGBTQ People Affected

No formal data on gender identity or sexual orientation is being taken, but estimates are that up to 10 percent could identify as LGBTQ. During a community outreach event in December, There’s Still Hope identified three transgender people living in the encampment. “Just keep in mind, there may be more living out there,” says Rev. Debra Hopkins. While There’s Still Hope provides transitional housing for local transgender people, Hopkins says none of the three people she encountered followed up for help at the time.

A volunteer from BLOC Love said that during the relocation, a significant number of transgender women were being relocated to one of the hotels and according to Davis, volunteers were looking through donations to help provide appropriate clothing after their clothes were thrown out.

HB1 is not designated as an LGBTQ organization, but it is run by LGBTQ people and many of the volunteers come from the community. “It brings many LGBTQ organizations together on focus issues,” says Davis. “The work that HB1 does for Charlotte allows the community to see LGBTQ people reaching out to help everyone.”

Paul Kelly joined the board of HB1 in 2019 and says that the exact numbers of LGBTQ people in the encampments is difficult to determine. He has worked with at least a dozen people while on the ground, but says some are “rightfully nervous to identify because hate crime is a real thing.”

As COVID-19 led to more people being impacted by unemployment and lack of access to food, HB1 worked with the community to provide meals to children and set up the NoDa food distribution site to provide hot meals to service industry workers and their children.

During the summer, their efforts turned into additional services for people in the community experiencing homelessness. Bethany McDonald serves as the Homeless Services Program director for HB1 and volunteered with Watchmen of the Streets, an organization that works directly with the shelterless community. This led to more actions from HB1, and the effort to help those experiencing homelessness has become a large part of the organization’s “Emerging Needs” mission.
Many board members and volunteers have experience working with LGBTQ organizations, but HB1 is intentional in their efforts to work with everyone. Kelly says the organization is looking at long-term solutions as well. “The LGBTQ community would benefit by getting involved in solving this problem,” he says. According to the True Colors Fund, a non-profit organization working to end homelessness in the LGBTQ community, youth who identify as LGBTQ are 120 percent more likely to experience homelessness and currently represent 40 percent of the 1.6 million young people who are homeless each year.