One of the biggest successes in Charlottes battle to end homelessness is also one of its cheapest, thanks to a Charlotte School of Law class that has students acting as consultants for men seeking jobs and housing.
Carson Dean of the Mens Shelter of Charlotte says having student volunteers work at his Housing & Employment Resource Center has saved the agency thousands of dollars since last fall.
Meanwhile, students enrolled in the schools Law & Rhetoric course say theyre getting to practice problem solving by dealing with the citys most challenged population, including men who are typically jobless, frequently disabled and likely to have a criminal record.
Ten students have signed up this semester to help at the center on Tuesday and Thursday nights, including Alexandria Andresen, 22, who recently spent a half-hour at the center helping homeless vet Larry Jamison look for an apartment.
Jamison, 57, recently discovered hes qualified for a housing voucher that will help pay his rent. He has been at the Mens Shelter a year and a half.
I just started looking, but getting help like this is making it a breeze, said Jamison. I had my own investment business and Im here because of the recession. Im a patient man. I know the time is going to be right to go at it again. Im just preparing myself for it.
The centers mission is to make homeless men aware of benefits theyre qualified to receive and show them how to use that money to find affordable housing.
Dean said the program is partly responsible for last years 10 percent decrease in homeless individuals in the county. That drop was documented in a recent report by the United States Conference of Mayors.
Last year, the shelter helped 360 men move into homes. And just as importantly, it connected them with the support services needed to keep them from ending up homeless again, Dean said. The goal this year is 400 men.
Andresen says working at the center is not quite what she expected.
I thought at first the most important thing was to get them in and out as quickly as possible, Andresen said. But in a lot of cases, they need someone to talk to and that seems to help motivate them. Respect and hope are the two things they really need in a place like this.
Assistant professor Erin Kane of the Charlotte School of Law said that type of observation is what she hoped to hear. Her goal is to see students hone their abilities to listen carefully, negotiate with clients and look for options.
This class, Law & Rhetoric, sounds dry, but doing these kinds of community projects makes it more real life, said Kane, noting students in the class are also given the option of participating in mentoring programs for at-risk kids.
Lawyering is getting to know your client, understanding the clients story and making a connection to a person seeking help who is in a much different situation.
The student volunteers are graded on their participation through a letter written at the end of the semester on their experiences and suggestions for the program.
Dean said the students suggestions have already had an impact, including increased emphasis on helping homeless men work on the computer to find and apply for jobs.
His plan now is to find more volunteers wholl help expand the program to five days a week.
A week ago, our staff moved five men into housing in one day, Dean said. And theres no way they could have done that without volunteers like those students working in the resource center.