By Joe Marusak, The Charlotte Observer
A Mecklenburg County commissioner said Friday the county is not doing enough to help the homeless during this week’s bitter cold, even as the county defended its work in helping the homeless.
“It’s not working,” commissioner Pat Cotham said of county efforts to get the homeless into shelters. “No one’s talking to them.”
The cold weather that enveloped the region this week set a record Friday morning when the temperature dropped to 8 degrees, which shattered a nearly 100-year-old record for the day
On four nights this week, including Friday, Cotham has given Chick-fil-A sandwiches and hand and feet warmers to the homeless on Charlotte’s streets. She said she’s spoken with 25 to 30 people a night.
“I will never forget holding the coldest hands I have ever touched – they belonged to a veteran and they were practically frozen and rough,” Cotham said in a Facebook post Wednesday night. “I have been uptown looking for Homeless people for last two hours… I wasn’t happy with the county’s response to not open a warming center.”
Cotham was referring to a statement by the county on Tuesday that said criteria had not been met to open a warming station/emergency shelter. Criteria include “a sustained wind chill factor of 10 degrees for (24 hours)” and an increase in call volume by 20 percent to 911 centers, or an increase in calls for assistance to service agencies.
She said the county could do more to get people off the street, including driving Park and Recreation vans along roads with signs offering help.
“I don’t feel there’s a big motivation to solve this,” Cotham told the Observer before heading back onto the streets to visit with the homeless Friday night. “I’m working harder. I’m 67 years old and out there every night.”
Cotham also laced into Charlotte Area Transit System officials for what she called their failure to publicize CATS’ practice of giving free rides to homeless people who need to get to a shelter when it’s extremely cold.
Asked about that criticism, CATS spokeswoman Courtney Schultz said CATS officials mentioned three times at a recent news conference how the transit system helps people get to shelters in cold weather.
CATS ensures that anyone who asks for help getting to a shelter ends up there, regardless of their ability to pay, Schultz said. If the person gets on a bus that has no shelter on its route, the driver will get help to determine where to drop the person off to transfer onto another bus to get to a shelter, she said.
County spokesman Andy Fair said he has spoken with Cotham about the homeless issue during the cold snap. “I think it’s really admirable what she’s doing,” he said.
“A whole consortium” of groups and people continue to tackle the issue, he said, and ensure that the homeless get out of the cold.
“There are more beds available than there were last night, and we expect more beds on Saturday and Sunday,” Fair said late Friday. “And we have plans in place to open up other places if needed.”