Residents at the Days Inn on Woodlawn Rd. in Charlotte, N.C. voiced their demands for utility usage and continued residency while sheltering-in-place is in effect.

A group of black transgender women are at the center of an emotional legal battle between tenants and the owner of the Days Inn on Woodlawn Rd. in South Charlotte.

On Monday, April 20, hotel management notified tenants, including Myka T. Johnson, that they had to vacate by the end of the day. The owner said he would be giving a refund, but that it would take a week or up to 30 days, according to activist Rene’ Couret who works with the Charlotte non-profit There’s Still Hope. “A lot of them are homeless and don’t have any other place to go,” says Couret. “They’re in this shelter-in-place situation. This is their home.” According to Couret, many of the tenants paid monthly and were paid up through the end of May.

That night, Johnson posted a series of videos on her personal Facebook page showing private security attempting to evict people from the hotel. Those willing to check out were offered an opportunity to get rooms at another hotel. In the video, you can hear a housing attorney from Legal Aid of North Carolina inform the general manager via phone that the occupants were considered tenants and subject to protections.

Myka T. Johnson and Rene’ Couret pause for a break while sheltering-in-place at the Days Inn on Woodlawn Rd. in Charlotte, N.C. (Photo Credit: Rene’ Couret)

Later that evening, video shows hotel employees packing up things and locking the hotel office. According to personal accounts the hotel management cut off the power and water that evening around 8:30 p.m.

Legal Aid of North Carolina’s website states that “a person renting a hotel room can be a tenant” and can only be evicted by the courts if the room is the person’s primary residence or “their home.” This requires the landlord, or hotel owner, to file a civil court action to evict and “is not allowed to change locks, turn off the electricity or water, or do other things to force a tenant to move.”

According to WFAE, this Days Inn was one of nearly 100 hotels in the Charlotte area that got warnings April 3 from North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein. “The letters said the state had received complaints that the hotels were threatening to evict people without court orders.”

“As of right now, I know that they can’t evict anyone,” says local attorney Zoila C. Velasquez who has volunteered to help some of the residents. “In order to go through that process, you’ve got to go in front of a judge and those hearings are not even taking place right now.” With COVID-19, Chief Justice Cheri Beasley has postponed all Superior and District Court hearings until June. This includes halting evictions.

Tuesday, April 21

On Tuesday, organizers from There’s Still Hope provided lunch and several people visited the hotel, including Mecklenburg County Sheriff Garry McFadden, At-Large Charlotte City Council Member Braxton Winston and At-Large Mecklenburg County Board of County Commissioners Pat Cotham who made phone calls to ensure that management turned the power and water back on, according to Couret.

That afternoon, management tried to convince people to leave by giving them immediate refunds and $250 cash to help them relocate. When residents refused at the advice of Legal Aid, management deactivated their key cards, locking some of them out of their rooms overnight. “People came back thinking their stuff is in their room and they can’t get in,” says Couret.

Wednesday, April 22

Tensions remained high between tenants and management according to personal accounts. Couret says that without the hotel staff working, the tenants were left to organize the community and take care of it themselves. “They clean and take trash out and take care of each other on-site,” says Couret. “They’ve been stepping up where this manager has not.”

A Facebook video posted by Sayuri Booler Crester, another resident of the hotel, shows Days Inn staff removing computers and other items from the hotel office before a verbal argument breaks out between Crester, the hotel manager and others. Some residents reported that they were still locked out of their rooms in the video.

Police and security maintained a visible presence around the hotel.

Thursday, April 23

Things seem a bit more streamlined at the hotel by Thursday according to Couret, but management had since left the property. Organizers created a sign-up sheet for people who wanted to drop off food and cleaning product donations, while Johnson and others raised money to assist residents. Wedgewood Church allowed them to wash their linens and clothes.

Over the next several days, donations continued to be delivered to the hotel and community support grew, while conflicting reports came out about the situation in the media. During that time, a plumbing problem caused flooding in some of the rooms and Johnson helped raise additional money to pay for a plumber and cleaning crew.

“What I find impressive about this situation is that they are the ones fighting for everybody else, like they always have throughout history,” says Couret referring to the four black transgender women at the Days Inn. “It’s amazing that people are not seeing that. Instead they’re trying to vilify them.”

On April 27, hotel management returned with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department officers and offered to make new key cards for tenants if they signed a contract that restricted guests from the ability to “roam” the hotel property or have unauthorized guests who did not occupy the room prior to April 20 at any time during the day. It also states that any damage will result in civil and criminal prosecution.

From the beginning, the hotel general manager told media that the decision to close came when the housekeeping and front-office staff refused to keep working in what they considered unsafe conditions due to COVID-19. The Days Inn is part of the Wyndham Hotels family, but independently owned by OMS Ventures of Charlotte. In a letter to WFAE, a spokesman for Wyndham said that the company is “troubled by how this situation has unfolded” and that all franchise holders must obey the law.

On May 1, attorneys for the owners filed a lawsuit at Mecklenburg County Superior Court to remove the residents from the hotel citing “immediate and irreparable injury will continue to be incurred if the Court does not grant injunctive relief.” The lawsuit claims that tenants have caused more than $20,000 in damage.

In a statement, the hotel’s lawyer, William Devore, said “The Days Inn’s number one concern is to have a hotel that is safe for its guests and its staff, which is why my client continues to offer to relocate these guests to another location while they make repairs and secure the premises.”

Rev. Debra J. Hopkins has experienced homelessness in Charlotte herself and knows how hard it is for people like many of the transgender tenants of the Days Inn. Today, she is the founding pastor of Essentials for Life Ministries, a non-denominational online ministry and the founding director of There’s Still Hope, a non-profit organization that helps provide temporary shelter in the Charlotte area to transgender adults.

“Not many people really concern themselves with the homeless community in particular, and in particular the trans community — black trans homeless community of adults,” says Hopkins. “The system here in Charlotte abandoned me — they didn’t assist me.” Hopkins spent a total of nearly two and a half years experiencing homelessness until Monarch in Charlotte helped her get back on her feet.

Food has been provided by the community to help residents at Days Inn to have their nutritional needs met since there has been no utility services due to a shutoff by owners. (Photo Credit: Myka T. Johnson)

One in five transgender people in the United States has been discriminated against when seeking a home, and more than one in 10 have been evicted from their homes because of their gender identity. Family rejection, discrimination and violence contribute to a large number of transgender people experiencing homelessness and that harassment often follows them into the shelters.

“The Days Inn situation is a very unfortunate one, even during the pandemic,” says Hopkins who states that many transgender women in Charlotte do not have any other place to go. “They’re scared. Some of them are dealing with health issues. Some of them are dealing with mental health issues. It’s a problem that needs to be addressed, but you can’t address them unless you address the first problem — to be able to provide some type of shelter, however long-term or short-term, as well as making sure they have something in their stomachs to eat.”

Since the pandemic began, There’s Still Hope has been able to help 15 transgender people, mostly women of color, providing them with emergency shelter at another local hotel. Some of those stays have been extended for up to two months due to shelter-in-place orders.

Hopkins has been fighting the city to create a space for the homeless community in abandoned hotels for three years and sees things only getting worse following the pandemic, especially for transgender women.

“They’re going to fall even further down the line when this pandemic has been fully lifted,” she says. “Many people who are currently going through some type of financial crisis, because of loss of jobs or what-have-you, are going to quickly find themselves, after the wall has been lifted at the end of the month, homeless, and the city will be readily in a position to help them faster than they will a trans person.

“So, they are pushed further down that pole, even after this pandemic. That is threatening to me,” says Hopkins.

On Monday, May 4, Legal Aid lawyers representing nine of the 12 tenants reportedly sent a formal response to the Days Inn lawsuit, refuting that their clients are the ones damaging the property.

As of press time, the case was expected to head to court on Tuesday, May 12.