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Coalition’s goal: housing for 100 homeless

By Elisabeth Arriero
earriero@charlotteobserver.com

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After more than 20 years of struggling with drug addiction, Michael Walley was finally getting his life together.

The 49-year-old had been clean for six months while attending Narcotics Anonymous meetings. He was attending the Community Culinary School of Charlotte, and he was working on securing a job once he graduated in August.

But as hard as he fought to get out of the throes of his circumstances, he was reminded of how far he still had to go every night when he returned to the Men’s Shelter of Charlotte.

The bathrooms weren’t always clean. He shared close quarters with people who didn’t always shower. And he had limited space for his personal belongings.

“It was a lot of chaos. It got very difficult,” he said. “You’re trying to better yourself and you’re treated the same as the person that ain’t doing nothing.”

But thanks to a multi-organizational coalition to help homeless people find residences, Walley won’t have to stay at the shelter anymore.

On Aug. 1, organizers handed him the keys to his own apartment in northwest Charlotte. Veterans Affairs will pay his rent, and Walley will pay all other bills.

“He’s one of those people who is a real go-getter when it comes to advocating for himself and wanting to really do better,” said Janetta Lambert, housing readiness coordinator at Charlotte’s Urban Ministry Center.

Members of Mecklenburg County’s homeless service providers hope to place 100 chronically homeless individuals into housing by Sept. 6, which marks the end of a 100-day period.

So far, Walley is one of 74 people who have been placed through the program.

Pamela Jefsen, executive director of Supportive Housing Communities, said that in May, local housing organizations came up with the “aggressive plan” after they attended a summit in Chicago hosted by Housing and Urban Development, Veterans Affairs and a nonprofit organization called 100,000 Homes Campaign.

Jefsen said that before the summit, the county’s homeless support services were placing less than 40 chronically homeless individuals, families and veterans into housing every 100 days; now, they want that number to reach 100 placements.

During the two-day summit, the hosts discussed their national goal of placing 100,000 chronically homeless in homes within five years.

Charlotte homeless leaders brainstormed to create a similar goal.

Jefsen acknowledged that the effort faces challenges. For instance, Charlotte Housing Authority had a $2.5 million budget cut. And it’s harder to get rental subsidies or find willing landlords to house the chronically homeless.

But she also said the community has received help: Veterans Affairs gave Mecklenburg County 40 vouchers to house homeless veterans, and Crisis Assistance Ministry is working with the coalition to provide free moving services through its moving ministry.

“There’s this collaboration that is now taking place that we weren’t doing before,” said Jefsen. “It’s really made a difference.”

The efforts are even more pertinent in the wake of the recession.

In January 2008, Mecklenburg County had 1,988 homeless residents, according to the North Carolina Coalition to End Homelessness. The county’s homeless population peaked in 2011 at 2,848.

By January 2013, the county had 2,418 homeless residents.

The key to the initiative is streamlining placement and coordinating to meet needs, said Laura Prevatt, partner relations manager at Crisis Assistance Ministry.

For instance, organizations like Crisis Assistance Ministry and Supportive Housing Communities should have housing application forms that ask the same questions because they’re serving the same population.

With the coordination, someone at Crisis Assistance Ministry can refer people to McCreesh Place (a Supportive Housing Communities housing facility) if they know the applicant wants to live in a sober environment, and there is room at the facility.

“It’s brought together many different agencies who are all trying to work toward solving a common problem,” said Prevatt.

Jefsen said that once someone becomes homeless, it can become increasingly difficult for them to become productive members of society without help. “Having a safe place to sleep is a basic human right,” said Jefsen. “People who become homeless often have a tidal wave of issues that make it difficult or impossible for them to cope.”

There are financial benefits to ending homelessness for the greater community. “It’s actually more expensive to have someone be homeless than for the community to pay for that individual to be housed,” she said.

For Walley, having the keys to his own apartment means he is one step closer to rebuilding his life.

“I get peace of mind,” he said. “It’s different. I’m still getting accustomed to it but I’m happy.

“For the first time in my life, I’m clean and really out on my own.”

Arriero: 704-358-5945; On Twitter: @earriero
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