On April 25, Patrick walks into the 7-Eleven like he usually does—stoned, strung out, and smiling.
“Nope,” the owner, James Phillips, tells him. Since purchasing the business at the intersection of Sugar Creek Road and Reagan Drive four years ago, James has built relationships with as many customers as he can, the travelers and hustlers and addicts.
“You know you can’t come in here like that,” James tells Patrick. “You know the rule.”
Patrick is a beloved figure in this area near the Interstate 85 interchange. It’s long been a reservoir for addiction and other troubles, a place where those pushed away from other parts of Charlotte wind up.
It’s become the focus of a proposed community effort from Greg Jackson, the founder of Heal Charlotte. Early this year, he brought together educators and CMPD officers and community members to discuss revitalizing the community from the inside out. He’s calling it the Reagan Drive Initiative.
Already he’s hosted prayer walks and community cookouts. His vision is to create sustainable affordable housing units, clean up the motels, and start a health clinic.
That story, about his efforts to bring hope to this area, was what we came here to tell when we started following him earlier this year. That he was doing it at a time when nearby neighborhoods are seeing new development and cost-of-living increases as a result of the the new light-rail line opened in 2018 only made it more intriguing.
“We’re trying to change the legacy of a community,” Greg told a couple of dozen people gathered around a table at the Texas Ranch House in late January.
A 16-year-old boy named Haji consumed our attention. Haji was arrested only a few days after that January meeting, and a judge ordered him to live with Greg. We checked in regularly and came to know a boy who, one on one, is far more complicated than his police record might indicate. The story we published yesterday wasn’t designed to convince you that he should be convicted or acquitted, but simply to show him as he is—a quiet young man, born into a tough situation, at a critical juncture in life.
Even as he suddenly became a guardian to a teenager, Greg didn’t stop his work on the Reagan Drive Initiative.
His dreams for the area can seem distant at times.
Every day between 11 a.m. and noon, James Phillips can walk out of his 7-Eleven and watch the area’s illnesses come to life across the street, as people move out of motel rooms with whatever they own.
James, a retired U.S. Army soldier, calls the late-morning movement the “duffel bag drag.”
Patrick’s a favorite, though. When he enters the store that Thursday in April, he’s 31 years old and lives with his girlfriend in a green tent in the curl of the southbound ramp of 85.
James keeps Narcan nasal spray in his store to revive people who are overdosing. Another well-known homeless man from the area, Rick, who wears a Minnesota Vikings shirt, usually has a few extra bottles. Rick doesn’t use drugs. But he packs small blue drawstring backpacks with supplies—water and crackers and Narcan—and gives them to people he sees struggling.
On that Thursday evening, James shakes his head when he sees Patrick approach the door.
“I know, I know,” Patrick says. “My mama asked me to come.”
“Your mama ain’t ask you to come here,” James says, laughing. “Stop the lies. Now you know, you got a whole week.”
That’s the rule, a week barred from Big Gulps.
Patrick turns around and walks away. Before he can go, the employee working the register, Kimberly Alexander, tells him to stop.
Kimberly loves that she gets to know all kinds of people in her job.
She runs out to give Patrick a hug, and she tells him that she’ll see him in a week.
James Ellis and Douglas Gallant like Patrick, too. They’re Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police officers from CMPD’s North Tryon division, and they work as community coordinators for the area around Sugar Creek and Reagan Drive.
Each morning around 8 a.m., they make their rounds. They check in at the McDonald’s parking lot and the plasma center, the gas stations and the motels. They’ve come to know a few tricks: Cars backed into parking spots, for instance, usually indicate that the driver’s trying to hide the tags because the vehicle’s stolen.
“See, look at that,” Ellis says as we ride through the Brookwood Inn parking lot. He’s pointing to a Ford Focus with its trunk facing the doors.
The Brookwood is one of 13 hotels in this small area. Most of them are inexpensive, some for as low as $50 for a single night, some for even less for extended-stay guests.
CMPD has asked the hotel owners to require that customers have a credit card, not cash, when checking in, and that they not rent to people who live in the same zip code. Some comply.
Ellis and Gallant make a point to praise the Quality Inn, for instance. The new owner has spent several months and several hundred thousand dollars renovating the building and trying to be more active in the community.
The officers are part of the Reagan Drive Initiative meetings. They’re also active in organizations like the Hidden Valley Neighborhood Association, and in Heal Charlotte, Greg Jackson’s nonprofit after-school program. They’re also the officers who took Haji back to Wal-Mart after the boy stole a bike from the store and regretted it. They didn’t charge Haji that day.
Ellis and Gallant have to make arrests regularly, though. And when they do, Ellis turns around and asks a question of each person in custody: “Why here?”
Often, the answer is the same.
“Cheapest hotels in the city.”
“I just think it’s a supply and demand issue,” Ellis says. “I don’t see how there’s enough business for 13 hotels.”
Some of the hotels aren’t just for drug use, though. A few have become a cover for human trafficking, the officers say.
North Carolina in 2017 ranked eighth in the country for cases referred to the National Human Trafficking Hotline. A year before that, CMPD created a human trafficking task force. Ashley Horton is a detective within the task force, and she regularly attends Reagan Drive Initiative meetings.
The Sugar Creek-85 area is “a big area for us. Labor and sex, but sex is more prevalent,” Horton says. “These people are offering the girls shelter, food, the idea of money. It emulates domestic violence.”
Shared Hope International recently gave North Carolina an A grade in its work on trafficking in 2018. Still, Horton says she gets about 300 calls per year that are flagged as being related to human trafficking or prostitution.
The realities raise a real question about initiatives like Greg Jackson’s.
Let’s say he’s successful. Let’s say he’s able to raise money to do everything he wants to do along Reagan Drive. Knowing him and his personality, it’s easy to see it happening. He has bright minds behind the project, including people like Dr. Shante‘ Williams, the chair of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Black Chamber of Commerce. She’s helping Greg develop a business model for the nonprofit that includes a possible Community Land Trust and an effort to raise as much as $15 million in public and private funds for affordable housing, mentorship, and other programs.
So let’s say that all happens.
What, then, will happen to the people walking around Sugar Creek Road and I-85 right now?
We ask Ellis and Gallant, the CMPD officers, that question. They take a moment to consider it before answering.
“It’s unfortunate that the only thing we can do is move it, but you can’t just have an area where you support people’s bad habits,” Ellis says. “We can’t take down the rest of everybody who’s doing good here.
“I don’t want to see anyone homeless. But the 13-year-old kid getting shot waiting for the school bus in the morning, I don’t want him to be shot.”
James Phillips waves his arm and tells us to walk through the woods behind his 7-Eleven.
“Man, it smells good,” he says of the honeysuckle lining the tree line. “Hope we don’t find no bodies.”
It’s just a joke, mostly.
In the patch of woods that separates his store and the single-family homes in Hidden Valley, we pass old bottles, a screwdriver, Chef Boyardee cans, mattresses, box springs.
It’s his responsibility to keep the woods clean, he says, and that only gets more difficult in the summer, as trees provide more shade for people looking to set up camp.
James now recognizes most of the people walking around. But he says he’s seen more newcomers in the past year or so.
“The blue line came in, which is great, but what did it do? Increased the rent, across the board,” he says. “When one new apartment comes in, that changes the dynamics of the apartments in the area. The other apartments are trying to bring their rates up, which does what? It pushes the families back out here and to the hotels.”
One of his employees, Eric Green, lives in the hotels. Eric’s in his early-20s and works the 4 a.m. to noon shift on most Thursdays and Fridays. The night before each shift, James reminds him: “Yeah, 4 a.m. Not 4:45. Not 6:10. Four.” Eric shakes his head up and down and chuckles at his fast-talking boss.
Eric and his family—his mother, his sister, and his girlfriend—moved to the Brookwood Inn after being evicted from their apartment nearby. They now live in three rooms, side-by-side-by-side.
“It’s not the life,” he says of living there fulltime.
He walks across the street to work every day.
Eric has a clean record and, more important to his boss, a work ethic. James is trying to teach him the skills to become a manager one day.
“I’m not going to quit on him,” James says. “He’s loyal. And loyal’s more important than anything.”
Patrick goes back to his tent and spends the night after James shooed him off the 7-Eleven property for being high.
What happens after that isn’t exactly clear to people who make the rounds here. But the story goes that the next day, Friday, Patrick gets into an argument with his girlfriend. She leaves the tent for some space.
When she returns, she finds him not breathing.
He dies on April 26 at 31 years old.
His obituary will say he grew up in Richmond County, a little more than an hour east of Charlotte, and he’s survived by his parents, two brothers, and several nieces and nephews.
It says nothing of the people who’d grown to care about him out near Sugar Creek and 85.
Officer Ellis shows up the following Monday for his first shift back from vacation. His work partner, Gallant, tells him the news, first thing.
“Gosh, Christian?” Ellis says. (They call Patrick by his first name.) “It’s sad but I’m not surprised.”
As they start their morning rounds through the neighborhood, another officer pulls up alongside them at the intersection of North Tryon and Sugar Creek.
“Did you hear about Christian?” he asks.
Gallant and Ellis say they have.
“Man,” the other officer says.
Gallant and Ellis drive past the spot where Patrick had his tent. There’s still a set of high-tops outside of it, along with one of those blue drawstring backpacks.
At the 7-Eleven, the news hits hard.
James walks across Sugar Creek Road to a crowd of people who gather regularly in between a McDonald’s and a Shell station.
“Who’s next?” he yells, his voice a mixture of furious and sad. “Who’s next?” he yells again.