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Men’s Shelter to set cap on admissions

By Mark Price
msprice@charlotteobserver.com

The Men’s Shelter of Charlotte says it intends to begin limiting the number of men it helps each night, as part of a new strategy to focus on the causes of homelessness.

A specific cap hasn’t yet been announced, but the agency is taking in more than 400 men a night. The current policy is to accept any Mecklenburg County resident, no matter how many men show up.

Supporters of the charity were notified of the change via an email that spelled out a return to ending homelessness for men, rather than just supplying them with a place to sleep.

“MSC is proud to have served all homeless men seeking our help during the recent Great Recession,” the email states. “It was the right thing to do during extraordinarily difficult economic times. … Now it’s time to return to our core mission and long-term sustainable solutions.”

Those solutions include greater emphasis on helping men get out of the shelter as quickly as possible, whether through jobs or contacting their families for help.

Men’s Shelter Executive Director Carson Dean said he does not expect the decision to prompt an increase in men sleeping in camps or abandoned buildings.

However, he said he hopes it will discourage some men from staying for years, including a few who have slept there for more than a decade.

A sample survey done in 2011 by the shelter showed clients had been homeless about two years and on average had stayed at the shelter less than a year.

The shelter hopes to get stays down to 30 days.

“There may be people we can’t serve … but that can sometimes help motivate people,” Dean said.

“They might take a hard look at other options, including checking into a long-term addiction recovery program or reaching out to their family for help. That is a positive step.”

The announcement comes just days after The Salvation Army Center of Hope shelter for women and children announced it was capping admissions at 350. However, that decision was based on years of overcrowding and increasingly limited finances.

Dean is quick to point out that the Men’s Shelter will not hold itself to a strict cap when the weather is a danger to homeless men. And he says men who are new to homelessness will never be turned away.

However, those men will quickly discover the agency is no longer just about beds and hot meals. The new strategy calls for each man to work out a plan by which he’ll get a job or improve his financial situation as quickly as possible.

An income specialist is to be hired this summer to help place the men in jobs in such industries as food service, landscaping and construction, officials said.

David Webb, board chairman for the shelter, says it’s about holding men accountable, an approach that is taking hold across the country.

In state after state, charity leaders are coming to the realization that providing emergency shelter beds does not end homelessness.

“It’s critical to provide emergency shelter, and that’s still part of our core,” said Webb, who has been on the board more than eight years. “But coming out of the recession, we felt it was good to focus on long-term solutions.

“It’s not a one-size-fits-all thing. It needs to be as individualized as possible to help them be self-sufficient.”

Like Dean, Webb does not believe the shift will prompt more men to stay outdoors. He points out that homelessness among single adults has been dropping in the city.

A report released earlier this year by the U.S. Conference of Mayors noted Charlotte’s overall homeless population dropped 10 percent last year, largely because of a decrease in the number of homeless people without underage children.

The men’s shelter is seeing that change, with 100 fewer men a night showing up compared with the same month last year, officials said.

Among the reasons: The shelter is focused on connecting men with benefits they aren’t aware of, including disability and veterans benefits. That money can then be used to help pay rent, officials said.

The shelter has also added programs to help men find affordable apartments, get access to transportation and supply the “up front” money needed for utility and apartment deposits.

Another solution getting more attention is connecting homeless men with long-lost family members who will take them in, officials said.

Over the past three years, those programs have helped 704 homeless men leave the shelter for more appropriate housing. Officials said 285 others were reunited with their families.

“I believe we are having a hand in the homeless population dropping,” Webb said. “It’s not to say we’re specifically the reason. It’s an improving economy that has a lot to do with it.”

Price: 704-358-5245
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