Charlotte Observer, January 24, 2008: Charlotte’s influx of poor adds strain

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Shannon Bartlett says she moved from Myrtle Beach to get one of the good-paying jobs she heard were plentiful in Charlotte.

But a month since she arrived, Bartlett remains frustrated. She once cared for patients at a hospice but now can’t find work. At night, she sleeps in makeshift homeless shelters at churches.

“There’s nowhere for a woman in my position to go,” said Bartlett, 46.

Every year Mecklenburg County adds tens of thousand of newcomers, often well-paid professionals who enhance the region’s reputation for prosperity. But there are signs that an increasing number of new arrivals are poor, jobless and homeless.

Social workers say the influx is contributing to a sharp rise in applications for public assistance, crowded homeless shelters and a jump in the percentage of families living in poverty.

State lawmakers are awaiting results of an ongoing migration study to find out how many newcomers live in poverty and how to meet the demand for services.

At least three Charlotte social agencies have already taken steps to deal with the influx by adding residency requirements to receive services. The city’s largest emergency homeless shelter won’t take new clients who haven’t resided in Mecklenburg or neighboring counties.

Many newcomers are poor

Since 2000 an average of 39,000 people a year have moved into Mecklenburg County from out of state; 20,000 from another N.C. county; and 6,400 from overseas, the American Community Survey reports.In 10 years, the county’s population will jump to 1.3 million from roughly 900,000, the Charlotte Chamber estimates.

No one knows exactly how many newcomers are poor or jobless, but a UNC Charlotte analysis of government statistics suggests “a lot of newcomers are poor, come here seeking opportunities and don’t find them,” said Jeff Michael, director the university’s Urban Institute, which compiled the report.

The study found the percentage of people living in poverty in Mecklenburg County rose to about 11.3 percent in 2005 compared with 9.2 percent in 2000.

Some demographers cite the statistic as evidence population growth has widened the gap between rich and poor in the Charlotte region, Michael said. Others, he said, believe more study is needed to draw a conclusion.

Demographer Ferrel Guillory, who is helping conduct a migration study for the state legislature, said growing Southern cities such as Charlotte, Raleigh and Atlanta are attracting two distinct groups: affluent business professionals and the poor looking for low-paying service jobs.

In addition, unemployment has pushed the rural poor into North Carolina’s large cities, Guillory said.

Space tight at homeless shelter

At the Salvation Army homeless shelter for women near uptown, officials tracked how many people sought shelter who had been in Mecklenburg less than one year. They found more than 1 in 4 clients were newcomers from July 2006 through June 2007.

Last week, 205 women and their children slept at the 200-bed facility. Some 50 other clients spent the night at a local church.

To ease crowding, administrators recently decided they will not admit anyone who is not a resident of Mecklenburg or neighboring counties, except in cases of domestic violence.

“We get dozens of calls each day asking if we have space,” said Deronda Metz, director of social services for the Salvation Army of Greater Charlotte. “If the call is from a noncounty resident, we say no.”

The number of homeless children attending Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools jumped to more than 2,200 in 2007 from roughly 1,900 a year earlier, said Peter Safir, director of the Homeless Services Network, a coalition of local social outreach agencies.

School officials attribute much of the increase to families who relocated to Charlotte from Kannapolis, Gastonia and other areas impacted by textile mill closings and the loss of other manufacturing jobs, Safir said.

“The families came here looking for jobs and haven’t been successful,” he said. “They are often living with relatives.”

The strain from newcomers is rarely discussed publicly by outreach agencies, who fear donors and politicians will cut off funding if they learn services are provided to noncounty residents. Some have imposed rules in recent years requiring clients live in Mecklenburg for a set period before they can receive services, arguing that limited resources should not go to newcomers at the expense of longtime residents.

Some elected officials complain that offering generous social benefits will attract more jobless and homeless people from other towns. The county helps fund the Department of Social Services, homeless outreach and emergency financial relief services.

“It’s one thing to take care of the poorest in society, but it’s another to import it,” Mecklenburg County commissioner Bill James said. “Most people are sick and tired of paying for people they are not certain deserve it.”

Looking for a better life

On a recent day, Lynale Taylor sat in a homeless assistance center trying to avoid the cold. Taylor, 38, said he has shuffled between crowded shelters since he arrived in Charlotte from New Orleans four months ago.

He said he moved to Charlotte for better job opportunities and safety. Taylor said he can’t get a job because he does not have a copy of his birth certificate, driver’s license or school records. All were lost, he said, during Hurricane Katrina.

“I was disappointed when I first got here and thought, `Why did I move here?’ ” Taylor said. “But you can’t blame it on the place. I’m trying to stay positive.”

A short distance away, Bartlett, the woman from Myrtle Beach, said she was waiting to hear about a small house she and her boyfriend could rent for $125 a week. Her boyfriend, however, does not have a car and was trying to make his way from a construction job in Boone.

“All I can do is live day-to-day,” Bartlett said. “Just hope and pray.”

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