Has Charlotte made progress in ending homelessness?

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When you see someone sleeping on a bench in uptown, asking for money at an exit off of the highway, or slipping under an overpass at night you become aware of Charlotte’s often silent homeless population.

2016 will mark the culmination of the ‘Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s Ten Year Implementation Plan to End and Prevent Homelessness’. Released in October 2006, the plan is an ambitious 43-page strategy to end homelessness in Charlotte focusing on three goals:

(1) Housing: Get homeless families and individuals to safe and permanent housing quickly.

(2) Outreach and Engagement: Link the chronically homeless to housing, treatment and services through intensive outreach and engagement.

(3) Prevention: Promote housing stability for those most at-risk of becoming homeless.

As the plan comes to maturation, has it been a success?

Is Charlotte better off now than it was 10 years ago as it relates to providing services to try to end and prevent homelessness? YES, because of consistent collaboration that is occurring.

But did we fully reach the goal set out in the plan? No.

Here is a look at how the plan has affected homelessness in Charlotte:

First we need to define homelessness, and believe me, there are a lot of definitions. Let’s consider a homeless individual as someone that lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence. These individuals are mostly either in shelters or unsheltered in places like cars or “homeless camps.”

For our purposes “couched homeless” (think: couch surfing) aren’t included in our numbers.

Where the plan succeeded: Housing units, collaboration, and assessment

By the numbers, the plan enjoyed some successes. With goals including creating 2,500 affordable units linked to services and developing a streamlined strategy to ensure resources are applied to those that need it most, the plan succeeded.

For example, the city’s Housing Trust Fund has created 3,290 homes since the 2006 fiscal year, said Mary Gaertner, neighborhood program coordinator with the city of Charlotte.

Also a “coordinated assessment” has been implemented. Now those that are homeless, or those that may soon become homeless, can visit several organizations and be assessed the same way.

“The plan was the start of a changing tide around how we address homelessness. We have made tremendous progress,” said Liz Clasen-Kelly, associate director of the Urban Ministry Center. Just a few years ago, she would’ve had to submit an application for a single person to each service program individually. “Now we have one waitlist,” Clasen-Kelly said.

Overall, a major success of the plan is the collaborative spirit that the city of Charlotte / Mecklenburg County and various charities and homeless service organizations enjoy. “We have the most collaborative approach to solving homelessness in our community than Charlotte-Mecklenburg has ever had,” Gaertner said.

Where the plan failed:

Homeless sleeping under a bridge

Moving the needle on ending homelessness is hard. Ten years is a long time, and even with the plan’s successes, it feels that we are moving at a glacial speed.

Regarding the goal of ending and preventing homelessness, the plan misses the mark. But really, is ending homelessness even possible?

Clasen-Kelly maintains that homelessness as we know it today is a rather new (in terms of modern history) phenomenon — and that can be overcome. She works every day, as she has for many years, to end homelessness in Charlotte. She strikes me as super smart. If Clasen-Kelly thinks we can end homelessness, I believe her.

Individuals experience homelessness for a variety of reasons including lack of affordable housing, domestic violence, substance abuse, mental health concerns, family issues and many more.

“Homelessness is a very complex issue. The bottom line to solving the issue is housing,” Gaertner said. But finding or building units for these individuals can be difficult. Funding can always be of a concern but what Gaertner calls the biggest issue to overcome in her job, is the ‘Not-In-My-Backyard’ issue.

Often people don’t want housing units designed to help those in need ‘in their backyard’. Most recently was the Charlotte Observer story where promotors of the North Tryon Street/North End area say that The Men’s Shelter of Charlotte and Urban Ministry Center need to relocate for that area to be fully revitalized. That’s like buying a house and then telling the neighbors to move.

In 2014, hundreds of residents attended the City Council meeting to protest affordable houses being built off of Weddington Road. These homes would mostly be for families that made around $38,000 a year or less. Gaertner said they have tried on several occasion to build developments in neighborhoods, and that the neighborhoods have gone to City Council to protest and try to stop the developments from being built.

Without additional units for those experiencing homelessness now or affordable housing for those that may potentially experience homelessness in the future, a solution may be hard to find.

How many people are homeless right now?

It’s hard to count the homeless. Individuals that are living unsheltered often don’t want to be found.

For the purposes of the 10 year report A Point-in-Time (PIT) count is used. The PIT is a single night count of those that are in shelters and those that are unsheltered. Literally volunteers go out with the help of various organizations on a single night and count everyone they can find. In January 2015, 2,001 homeless individuals were identified. That number was down from 2,014 people identified in 2014 and 2,418 in 2013.

So from 2015 to 2014 the number went down – but only by 13 people during the PIT count – are we really making any headway?  By this report – it’s hard to tell.

Another set of data, Homeless Management Information System (HMIS), a data system managed by agencies and capturing only sheltered individuals or those applying for services found that from 2005 to 2014 those in shelters increased by 41% (10% from 2013 – 2014).

This report clearly identifies that the homeless population is growing. But are there really 40% more homeless people in Charlotte now than in 2005? Maybe not.

Confused?

Ashley Williams Clark of UNC Charlotte’s Urban Institute and an author of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Cumulative Count Report says that the homeless population is rising, but there may be other reasons for the increase. She clarified, “It’s hard to say definitively what has influenced the rise of homelessness. There are a variety of factors. It could be a true rise, but it could also partially be a reflection of more people being connected with services and increased program capacity. We are also constantly improving our data collection methods to be able to better understand homelessness in our community.”

So how many individuals were homeless right now in Charlotte?

A good answer is 2,000+ on any given day – and that number may fluctuate. That’s means if every homeless person in Charlotte went to the Belk Theatre – it would be standing room only.

An immediate concern – Chronic Homelessness.

homeless in charlotte

The chronically homeless (those that have been homeless for more than one year, or have a pattern of extended periods of being homeless over several years) are by far the most problematic type of homelessness. Studies find that 10% of the homeless population are chronically homeless but those individuals use about 50% of resources available.

Among services for the chronically homeless in Charlotte is a program called ‘Housing First Charlotte-Mecklenburg’, a community initiative to end chronic homelessness by the end of 2016. The program uses a ‘housing first’ approach which takes people directly off the street and puts them in housing and surrounds them with support services instead of having barriers to entry to housing units. (The old mentality was to provide services, and when someone was ‘ready’, then to provide housing.)

What has become apparent is that the solution to ending homelessness has to be a coordinated approach that brings a wide array of services together.

Meet a success story: Edward Smalls

Edward-Small-Speak-Up

Edward Smalls was chronically homeless, but through the help services and a magazine called Speak Up Zine, he is a success story of sorts. He moved to Charlotte after his son had been violently killed in Charleston around 2008. He says from 2012 to May 2015, he lived on the street. Now Edward lives in a motel at a weekly rate. He makes his money selling Speak Up Zine in Uptown where he can generate enough money to pay for his room. Edward says he still eats at a soup kitchen every day but considers selling the magazine his job.

But Edward is not out of the woods by any means. Any number of things could prohibit him from making enough money in a given week and not be able to pay for his room. To that end, Edward said, “This is my job and it is taking care of me right now. Things like soup kitchens and Speak Up Zine really help.”

How you can help

Navigating the world of homelessness can be exhausting. Start here. Find out how you can volunteer or financially support programs that make a difference in Charlotte that match your interests.

Then spread the word among your social group.

Homelessness is a community issue and is going to require a community based approach to solve.

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Collin Beck
| @thatCBeck
Writer, actor, and theatre enthusiast who also happens to work in the alcohol industry.