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United Way unveils region wide approach to homeless

United Way is teaming with Wells Fargo and Foundation for the Carolinas to unveil a new initiative Friday that will change how the region deals with homeless individuals and families.

Promising a “no wrong door” approach, the new Coordinated Intake System will have all the community’s housing agencies working collectively to determine the best program to fit a homeless person’s needs.

A $200,000 grant from the Wells Fargo Foundation is providing money for the first phase, which will start next summer.

United Way officials say what they’re creating is a way for homeless people to find out almost instantly how to get help. That has become increasingly tough as a growing number of charities have created programs that cater to specific categories of homeless.

“This will fundamentally change how our community serves the homeless,” said Jane McIntyre, United Way’s executive director.

“Right now, the homeless are often bounced from place to place, depending on whether they are male or female, if they have kids, if they need to be in substance abuse recovery, whether they are employed and more. It’s an exhausting process and these people are already at the end of their rope.”

This marks the second of United Way’s Collective Impact Initiatives, which seek to dedicate donor dollars toward solving important community problems. The first initiative, focusing on youth and education, was launched in 2012 with $200,000 from Wells Fargo.

United Way officials say the idea of creating a Coordinated Intake System originated with the federal Housing and Urban Development department, which is requiring 11 Mecklenburg County agencies that get HUD money to adopt the system by August 2014.

However, what United Way is proposing goes far beyond 11 agencies, creating a five-county safety net that will eventually link together the resources of 40-plus housing services agencies.

“What we particularly like about this program is that it extends well beyond United Way agencies,” Jay Everette of Wells Fargo said in a statement. “Creating solutions requires broad community leadership and a diverse group of housing partners have been working on this issue over a year now.”

Currently, even something as simple as settling on an exact count of the city’s homeless population is up for debate, with some charities counting only those on the streets, while others count those barely clinging to housing in a hotel or sleeping on the couch of a friend.

United Way is considering both groups, which puts the community’s homeless count at about 7,200 people, more than half of whom are children enrolled in the Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools.

While overall homelessness has declined slightly, the number of homeless families has increased between 21 percent and 36 percent annually since 2009. Experts attribute the growth to companies cutting back on pay for already low-wage jobs.

The Homeless Services Network of Charlotte, consisting of agencies that help the homeless, was the first to tell United Way of a need for the Coordinated Intake System.

United Way then worked with Foundation for the Carolinas and Wells Fargo to organize the effort and hire consultants. Brian Collier of the foundation says the effort is an example of Charlotte’s housing charities “thinking big.”

“We met over a year ago with key leaders in the housing sector and I asked them: What if we had a chance to rewrite the way we managed housing in Charlotte?” Collier said.

“This is something they’ve been waiting for their entire careers: for the community to value what they do and give them the resources to execute those big ideas.”

Among the programs that will benefit from the new coordinated intake system is a new $20 million rental subsidy endowment created through a partnership with the foundation and the city.

The endowment could begin helping homeless families as early as next year.

United Way currently divides $5.9 million in grants among 31 agencies in five counties that work with housing and financial stability. HUD gives an additional $4.4 million in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, including $2.1 million to seven United Way agencies.

Deronda Metz of the Salvation Army Center of Hope said one of the benefits of the new approach will be a collective database that could identify the region’s most successful programs at preventing homelessness or ending it more quickly.

“There are so many different stages along the path of homelessness, you need a continuum of services to battle it effectively,” said Metz in a statement.

“A unified database to measure our collective progress will eliminate duplication, increase coordination and make us all more effective at what we do.”

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