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Uptown property owner sues city, county to clear homeless camp that's next door

The Charlotte Observer logo The Charlotte Observer 12/1/2020 Lauren Lindstrom, The Charlotte Observer

The owners of property near the homeless encampment just outside uptown have added the city of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County to a lawsuit seeking to clear the camp, calling it a threat to property values and safety.

Owners of 2.3 acres at 900 N. Tryon St. say local government leaders have failed to address the growing number of homeless people who camp nearby, rendering their property “worthless and unmarketable.” The land is currently vacant.

Owner Samar Ismaiel Ahmad Ismaiel and her three brothers, who are her business partners and also named plaintiffs, are seeking a nuisance order to clear the camps and seek damages for financial losses.

Local leaders, the plaintiffs say, have “failed and refused to provide adequate resources for the area’s homeless population,” likening the situation to “no better shelter or resources ... than would a refugee camp in a war-torn nation.”

At least 100 people live there, some of whom are experiencing chronic homelessness. The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened housing options in Charlotte as shelters have had to reduce capacity to allow for more distancing in congregate living facilities.

Plaintiffs amended the lawsuit, previously filed in July, to include the city and county on Nov. 13. They had previously sued Morningstar Storage and WorldCom Network Services, owners of property neighboring Ismaiel’s, seeking to compel them to oust campers on their parcels.

The plaintiffs allege meetings with city and county leaders over several years have gone nowhere, and that local officials have turned a blind eye to enforcing code, zoning and police violations in the area.

“The city and the county have essentially declared that is an enforcement-free zone, and allowed — and encouraged, really — the homeless people to gather there,” said Ed Hinson, an attorney for the plaintiffs.

Three prospective buyers for the property have fallen through, plaintiffs allege, most recently an Ohio company that backed out of a $5.1 million contract earlier this year.

The properties at issue are near a growing tent encampment for homeless residents just outside uptown near Roof Above’s day services center, formerly known as the Urban Ministry Center.

Earlier this summer, Observer journalists counted more than 100 tents in the area around College Street. The amended lawsuit alleges that number has grown to “300 residents and tents.” Plaintiffs say city and county leaders have not done enough to provide for those living there, which has hurt nearby businesses.

“While it is not our typical policy to comment on active litigation, it is our hope and desire that we can assist in assembling a community response to the homeless encampment issues that appear to be the subject matter of the lawsuit,” city spokesman Cory Burkarth said in a statement. “We are actively seeking assistance from our community partners and the parties to this litigation to identify potential solutions to this issue.”

A Mecklenburg County spokesman said the county does not comment on pending litigation.

While Charlotte’s homeless population is not new with the pandemic, COVID-19 has made the crisis of unsheltered homelessness more visible.

Around the time the lawsuit was first filed, WB Moore, owner of a separate parcel less than half a mile from Ismaiel’s property, alerted police of their intention to enforce a no trespassing order on land it planned to develop. As the deadline to clear tents there approached, Mayor Vi Lyles released a statement asking county officials to lead a group of homeless experts and service providers to tackle the issue.

Mecklenburg spokesman Lawrence Corley said in a statement Monday the county “is convening bi-weekly meetings of stakeholders, including service and housing providers and CMPD. So far, the group has worked to improve data collection and to develop a more strategic approach to outreach to people in the encampment.”

The lawsuit to force people from living in the encampment has also drawn support from North End Partners, a group of business owners near North Tryon.

Morningstar Storage and WorldCom Network Services remain defendants in the amended complaint. Attempts to reach representatives from the two companies have been unsuccessful.

Editor’s note: This story was updated Dec. 1 with a statement from the city of Charlotte.

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©2020 The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, N.C.)

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