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'The cards are stacked against us' | How COVID-19 is growing tent cities around the Queen City

Homeless outreach groups say some tents belong to newly homeless, but that's not the full story.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Ronnie Smith is living in the woods in Mooresville now. His tent was once in Charlotte, until COVID-19 and the stay-at-home order.

Smith says he's been homeless for more than a year.

"I was working 45, 50 hours a week at a job in the Epicentre. The minute Governor Cooper said take-out only, no more dine-in, we all got furloughed," said Smith. "I very was close to getting out of the situation I'm in, and now it's like a setback."

Sadly, it's a common theme at homeless encampments around the area, says Heath Burchett, who connected us with Smith. Burchett is the founder of the homeless outreach group "Watchmen of the Streets."

"I just met a couple of guys the other week that were experiencing homelessness," said Burchett. "One of the guys--he was just beside himself. He was in tears. He goes, 'I'm really humbled.' He goes, 'I've never been homeless in my life.'"

While COVID-19 certainly didn't help the homelessness issue, Burchett says, in many ways, it just further revealed what was already there. 

"Affordable housing going away. So that's a huge challenge. On top of mental illness and drug addiction, and now we have people who can't find work," said Burchett.

Many of those folks, come to Urban Ministry Center. Near the homeless services organization northeast of Uptown, a tent city is growing.

"It's very visible. We estimate there are probably 70 tents that are in and around the day center," said Randall Hitt, Chief Engagement Officer for Urban Ministry Center - Men's Shelter of Charlotte.

Hitt says the new tents are likely both newly homeless and previously homeless, but left to camp due to CDC guidance.

"The guidelines are that, if there's an encampment or a tent community, it's about trying to get them resources and educating them on what they can do, but not really going in to break that up," said Hitt.

He says, while they've had to make some changes due to COVID-19, their services are still there to help people get through this new challenge.

For Smith, the wait for work goes on. He says he's gotten several responses from restaurants ready to give him work, once they get the green light to reopen.

"It's just like the cards are stacked against us," said Smith. "It just seems like you take a step forward and take two steps back. And it's hard, but we're trying. There are people out here like myself that are trying hard."

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