Unsheltered homelessness is often thought of as a problem typical of big west coast cities like Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, but North Carolinians are taking notice of a similar trend in their own backyards. Every major metro area — Charlotte, the Piedmont Triad, the Research Triangle, Fayetteville, Asheville, and Wilmington — is experiencing significant increases in their unsheltered homeless population and is struggling to respond.

In 2020, the top five states for homelessness per capita were New York, Hawaii, California, Oregon, and Washington, with North Carolina at 35th, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness (NAEH). But with a nationwide spike in unsheltered homelessness since 2015, these numbers mask a growing problem in the state’s major cities. NAEH’s 2022 update said this trend has continued since the pandemic and was not caused by a lack of beds because resources and shelter space actually increased faster during this time relative to demand.

Experts on homelessness often make a distinction between the sheltered homeless — who stay in emergency housing and are more likely to be family units affected by temporary economic circumstances — and unsheltered homeless populations — who live in areas not designated for human habitation, like under bridges or on benches, and are more likely to be males unaccompanied by a spouse or children.

One theory for the rise in unsheltered homelessness since 2015 is the arrival of street fentanyl in 2014. A large majority of unsheltered homeless deal with mental health and drug dependency conditions. A 2019 UCLA study found that 78% of unsheltered homeless report mental health conditions compared to 50% of sheltered homeless, and that at least 75% of unsheltered homeless are users of illegal drugs compared to 13% of the sheltered homeless.

North Carolina has tracked with the national numbers, showing improvement since 2007 then a quick recent reversal, especially among unsheltered homeless. The cities affected by these spikes are also facing difficulties with maintaining safe, sanitary environments that encourage business and social life.

According to the NAEH data, Asheville has the highest rate of homelessness in the state, with 21 out of 10,000 residents being homeless. An audit from the city council in 2022 found that the city’s homeless population had risen 21% increase in a single year. But more worryingly, their unsheltered homeless population doubled in that time frame — from 116 to 232 — and the 2021 number had also nearly doubled from the 2020 count of 65

Asheville’s homeless services director told Mountain Xpress that the 2022 number was likely higher, but it was proving difficult to count because so many of the homeless were rejecting the shelter beds to sleep outside. On the night of the count, 155 of the city’s shelter beds went unused. The survey found that the “restrictive rules” at shelters was the top reason for preferring sleeping on the streets.

The Research Triangle area, including Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill, has seen an increase in issues with homelessness as well. After media attention and frequent complaints from businesses, students, and residents about harassment, open drug use, threats of rape, and assault, the mayor and police chief of Chapel Hill put out a joint statement addressing the conditions along Franklin Street, the center of social life for the town and its university. 

“Recently, community members have raised concerns on social and local media about safety on Franklin Street and the behavior of some of our community members who are experiencing homelessness,” the statement said. “We know many downtown merchants, residents, and visitors are frustrated. We also know this is a struggle for those community members who are in need. As town leaders, we are committed to addressing these matters – through the means available to us — so that Franklin Street and our downtown are safe for everyone.”

UNC grad student James Fay told WRAL, “It feels like they’ve really allowed the homeless element to really take over sections of Franklin Street,” and that he and his friends now avoid going to bars and restaurants downtown.

WRAL also covered a similar situation in neighboring Durham, also in the summer of 2022, where a group of downtown restaurants is demanding laws be enforced on the downtown homeless. The owner of Irish pub Bull McCabe’s said that a particular group of homeless were “walking up to customers who were trying to eat, harassing them, taking food off their plate, smoking and ashing on their food… throwing the food and drinks off their tables. Pulling their pants down.” The restaurant owners complained that the police and prosecutors refused to hold them accountable, so things were getting dangerous at their establishments.

Even in the state capital Raleigh, the issue seems to be getting worse, as Wake County’s point-in-time count found that the homeless population had doubled since 2020. 

According to a WBTV report in early September 2022, Charlotte is seeing significant month-over-month increases in homelessness as well. The report quoted a local nonprofit worker as saying the problem is much worse than most people realize and likely double what the official numbers say. The data cited showed a one-month increase of 239, bringing the area’s homeless population to 2,666. 

In Wilmington, the point-in-time survey showed a rise from 301 in 2021 to 341 in 2022, with a rise in unsheltered homeless from 122 to 150. In the Triad, United Way of Forsyth County says the issue is also growing. In 2020, there were only 30-80 people living on the streets of Winston-Salem, but they told WFMY that they now estimate an all-time high of 250. Rounding out the state’s major metro areas, Fayetteville also saw an increase from 297 in 2020 to 475 in 2022. 

Many of those interviewed in media reports on homelessness ask for laws against public camping, drug use, assault, panhandling, harassment, and other crimes to be enforced to restore order. A rise in housing costs and the COVID-19 pandemic were also cited by many as contributing factors, although factors that likely more often affect sheltered rather than unsheltered homeless. Experts also frequently recommend more mental health and drug treatment options for those living on the street as part of the solution.