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Work begins on housing endowment

When the Charlotte City Council quietly agreed this month to share the cost of creating an endowment to help homeless families, it set into motion a series of changes that could transform large segments of Charlotte’s nonprofit community.

Organizations from emergency shelters to church congregations will be called upon to participate in the program, including some that will apply for endowment money on behalf of specific people in need.

Nonprofit and government programs for people who are homeless will be streamlined to create a single intake system where all homeless families will be evaluated for the best housing program to suit their needs.

Families in need of short-term help are the targeted group to benefit from the endowment.

Brian Collier of Foundation for the Carolinas is the man who presented the idea to the city: Create a $20 million rental subsidy endowment, with $10 million provided by the city and $10 million from private donors. Mecklenburg County will supply thousands of dollars more for social services to help the families avoid falling back into homelessness.

Collier is working to get the program off the ground, including creating an oversight committee (all volunteer) and crafting a fund drive that will raise the private sector share of the money by Dec. 31.

The foundation already has commitments for $4 million in private dollars.

Collier knew from the start that it would be a tough sell to city officials, and he’s more surprised than anyone that the plan survived this year’s budget hearings.

“There were times I thought this was not going to happen, because it was hard for people to understand how it would be a game changer for the community,” he says.

‘A high standard’

“It’s legitimate for people to have concerns about whether the program can succeed, and I think that’s the reason why we are going to hold ourselves to a high standard when it comes to reporting success or challenges.”

In coming months, Collier says program representatives will approach landlords across the city to seek their participation and will contact houses of faith to see if their members will join as volunteers or donors.

The oversight committee will monitor how contracts are released into the community, he says. In addition, one organization in the city will be chosen to “subcontract” out the money for agencies to use for subsidies and support services.

Collier noted that questioning City Council members actually helped focus the program because they wanted a better idea of who would be served. That input led the foundation to strengthen the endowment’s emphasis on helping low-income families with children and veterans, who are expected to return in large numbers to the area as overseas conflicts scale back.

Homeless families are estimated to account for 4,000 people in the city, with some in shelters but more in hotels or sleeping on the couches of friends.

The numbers have grown between 21 percent and 36 percent annually since 2009, which experts attribute to companies cutting back on pay for already low-wage jobs.

A handful of Charlotte agencies are working with homeless families, and they are the same ones that will benefit from the endowment, including Charlotte Family Housing, Crisis Assistance Ministry, the Salvation Army and the Charlotte Housing Authority.

The endowment is intended to speed their work along by offering temporary rent help to families who need less than two years to become self-sufficient again.

Housing authority CEO Fulton Meachem said the endowment comes at a time when he has 114 homeless families on a waiting list for housing.

His agency is reeling from losing $2.5 million through the federal government’s sequestration budget cuts, which will result in 10 employees losing jobs and furloughs for those who remain, he said.

“But at the end of the day, we still have a responsibility to provide quality homes for people in need,” Meachem says. “There’s no question we’ll be applying to the endowment.”

The endowment would like to build on the success of programs like that offered by Charlotte Family Housing. That agency is devoted to housing homeless parents who have jobs (or a strong job history), but need guidance achieving financial independence.

This includes not only helping them improve their employment status, but surrounding them with volunteers who guide them with such things as financial advice.

The agency says about 70 percent of the families in its program have graduated to financial independence and are able to pay their own rent.

“This is not just about rental assistance. Most homeless families we see have a negative support system or no support system at all,” says Darren Ash of Charlotte Family Housing.

“So we go to a lot of effort to train good-hearted volunteers to become a new positive support system for the families. That can include helping parents advocate for their children in the school system or avoiding predatory lending practices.”

When the City Council agreed to participate, it voted to include the first $2 million installment in next year’s budget. The source of the remaining $8 million in city dollars has not yet been determined.

Interest from the $20 million is what will be used to pay for the program, which means things will start slowly and grow over time.

‘Phil’s Deli Group’ idea

It wasn’t the Foundation for the Carolinas that initially came up with the idea for the fund.

Advocates for the homeless credit the concept to a volunteer group known as the “Phil’s Deli Group,” which is made up of faith leaders who meet regularly at a local restaurant to discuss community issues.

“In my position in the foundation, we hear great ideas all the time, but this group had a clearly thought-out plan and a lot energy and passion,” says Collier.

“We knew it was the issue we wanted to put the foundation’s resources behind.”

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