The nonprofit Supportive Housing Communities last year faced a neighborhood backlash over its plan to house 100 chronically homeless people in a vacant building in Elizabeth. The project died soon after when local funding dried up as well.
Now, the agency is back with a new plan: House small groups of those same homeless in different apartment communities across the county.
The agency has already started moving the first dozen into an apartment building near W.T. Harris Boulevard and The Plaza. More will be moved into other apartment communities as money and willing landlords become available.
Its an approach that has become a national trend among agencies working with the chronically homeless adults whose lives are complicated by disabilities and addiction.
By the end of the year, such scattered site housing efforts by local organizations will account for a combined 360 chronically homeless people being placed in apartments across the county. Much of the cost is covered by federal programs.
Pam Jefsen, head of Supportive Housing Communities, says using apartments for the chronically homeless is a way around the protests her agency encountered in Elizabeth last spring.
Neighbors were specifically critical of the idea that those 100 homeless people would be living next to a park and school. All 100 were to be mentally or physically disabled. Some also would also be recovering from addictions.
Experts say spreading smaller groups of homeless adults across a bigger area is less apt to draw protests. It also lessens the problem of low-income households being concentrated in one area.
Everybody recognizes its increasingly difficult to build a development, Jefsen said. I think its important to continue building affordable housing in Charlotte. But for those of us trying to get the most vulnerable into housing, this is the quicker option. They might wait another three years if we were building a development.
Among the first to get an apartment in the new effort was Janice Blair, 50, who has emphysema, hepatitis C and a history of addiction. Blair says she spent most of her adult life alternating between shelters, jail and her mothers couch.
Shes now talking about getting her GED and imagining what it will like to have her grandchildren eat Thanksgiving dinner at her house, something shes never managed in the past.
Ive never had my own place, so its a feeling I cant put into words, she says. The first time I walked in, I wanted to cry. I took a 20-minute shower. Then I got back in and took another shower.
Stuff like that you miss so much when you dont have a home.
Goal is self-sufficiency
Its estimated that Jefsens new effort will cost about $262,000 for the first two years, including a social worker, who will monitor folks progress and help them gain access to other services, from transportation to health.
If all goes as planned, the tenants will live in the apartments indefinitely.
Jefsens agency is dedicated to housing the chronically homeless and is best known for operating the McCreesh Place homeless site on North Davidson Street. It houses 90 men who face disabilities or addiction issues.
The chronically homeless are a troubled subset of the homeless that experts say cost local taxpayers an average of $39,450 a year per person, based on a survey by Charlottes Urban Ministry Center. That figure is based on such things as frequent hospital admissions and nights spent in jail for nonviolent offenses like trespassing and public urination.
The Urban Ministry Center has identified 1,172 chronically homeless adults living among the countys 5,000-plus homeless men, women and children. Of that group of 1,172, about half have serious medical conditions that make them vulnerable to dying on the streets.
Charlottes charity effort to expand housing for such people started small in 2008, with an Urban Ministry effort that housed 14 adults in apartments and surrounded them with supportive services.
That program, which is only one of the ministrys housing efforts, has since expanded to 45 apartments and maintains a 90 percent housing retention rate, officials said. The program will continue to expand, officials said.
As for the hundreds of others still waiting for housing, the ministry reports that 16 have already died on the streets in the past three years.
Elizabeth troubles force change
Jefsen says her agency had planned to build three apartment communities like McCreesh Place in the next five years, to house 225 chronically homeless.
But the troubles faced in Elizabeth forced her to innovate.
Money that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development committed to the Elizabeth project is being used for apartments.
The first dozen homeless are being moved into the 33-unit St. Johns Church Road Apartments near Reedy Creek Park. Rents will be $425 a month, and tenants are expected to contribute 30 percent of their income to the cost. That income typically comes from disability or veterans benefits.
Thirty people have applied to move in, including some who live in homeless camps around the city, officials said. All will undergo criminal background checks before moving in, officials said.
City and county officials contacted by the Observer concede some neighbors might have concerns about the expanding use of apartments for the chronically homeless.
However, Charlotte City Council member Andy Dulin said those concerns might be born of myths: Just because youre homeless doesnt mean youre going to be ripping off someone else.
Plus, hes not sure the city or citizens can do anything about it. Council member Patsy Kinsey agrees.
She is familiar with the idea of scattered site housing and she says shes never heard a complaint about it. That could be because neighbors dont realize chronically homeless people are living next door, she says.
People get all up in arms when you place all the chronically homeless in one area, and I understand that, Kinsey says. I think this makes sense because it spreads a few here and a few there. Its easier for a neighborhood to accept.
Peter Safir, homeless services director for Mecklenburg County, says avoiding protests saves charities time and money. His department is among those that use scattered site apartments, for a HUD-financed program called Shelter Plus Care. It houses 257 disabled homeless people in apartments, coupled with social services.
Yet another county scattered-site project is in the works for this summer, officials said, catering specifically to chronically homeless people with a criminal history. That initiative, called FUSE, will start by housing 45 homeless adults who are determined not to be a threat to the community. Apartment sites have yet to be chosen. The program, which is expected to grow, will be funded with county money, officials said.
They will have to meet behavior standards and they will be closely monitored, Safir says.
The thing about scattered site housing is that you cant put people out there and leave them alone. You have to have supportive services so they dont undo the all progress theyve made in addressing the issues that made them homeless.
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