Its 11 a.m. on a Tuesday, and Barbara Green has so far made only one young woman cry, which is still two or three shy of her typical day on the job.
Tears, cursing and even threats have become routine for Green as gatekeeper of Charlottes chief emergency shelter for homeless women and children, the Salvation Army Center of Hope.
I once had a lady lock herself in the bathroom and tie herself to the pipes under the sink, says Green. I tried talking her out, but we had to get the police to come get her. She was just plain desperate because she had no place else to go and thought her kids were going to be taken from her.
The sense of panic among the homeless only worsens during cold snaps like last week. Green turns away as many as 40 people a day because of an ongoing shortage of beds.
Its often a mystery where they end up, but shelter officials admit worrying that a woman or one of her children will die on the streets after being denied a bed.
Homelessness among families in Mecklenburg County has jumped between 21 percent and 36 percent each year since 2009, which experts blame on soaring housing costs, low-paying jobs, cuts in hours and layoffs prompted by the economic downturn.
Finding money to help the homeless is always a challenge. But emergency shelters like this one have an added burden: A new federal emphasis on moving people out of shelters and into subsidized apartments as quickly as possible.
Most agree that this is a worthy goal. The problem in Charlottes case is that the Center of Hope is not large enough to act as even a transitional place.
One solution proposed by community leaders is to use the Housing Trust Fund controlled by the city of Charlotte to add 30 beds for women and children at the Center of Hope. That way, more could get started with housing programs.
In the meantime, overcrowding is expected to worsen after Dec. 31 when the centers temporary 50-bed overflow shelter at Caldwell Memorial Presbyterian Church near uptown closes, in part due to a lack of money.
Combine that with Charlottes ugly winter weather, and 58-year-old Green cant help but expect tough times ahead.
The difference between my job and a lot of other peoples jobs, she says, is that the people I say no to could end up raped or killed on the streets.
Up to 75 calls daily
Green starts her day at 8:30 a.m. and arrives to a ringing phone and waiting messages. It typically continues ringing until she leaves at 5 p.m.
Five calls so far, she says at 9 a.m. One stayed in an abandoned house last night. One is a mother with a 3-month-old and a 1-year-old. Another has four children, and she has been told to get out of her cousins house. That happens a lot. Family gets tired of someone not contributing and they just kick them out.
Up to 75 calls a day is not unheard of, including inquiries from hospitals, group homes and detox facilities that have clients with no home. Sometimes, Green says, police just bring people to the door and drop them off.
Green knows of at least one woman who was sexually assaulted after being refused a bed. The result is a little-known shelter policy that forbids staff from turning away any woman who comes to the door after dark. That only compounds the crowding.
We have no space at the shelter today, Green tells the callers, one by one. Where did you stay last night? Do you think theyll let you stay there again? Im not sure when well have another bed, but try calling tomorrow. Miracles do happen.
When one caller starts to cry, Green presses for details and learns the woman had a bed at the shelter days earlier, but left to visit an ailing mother in a nursing home.
Once you get in here, you do what you need to do to stay, Green tells the woman, because weve got people waiting for the bed you give up.
There are 250 beds at the Center of Hope, but the nightly count in recent years has been as high as 375. Half are typically children, some just weeks old.
In April, frustrated shelter staff announced they were capping the number at 350 per night, which includes overflow sites at Caldwell Memorial Presbyterian Church and Victory Christian Church. The new policy means a homeless woman is not allowed in the shelter until someone else decides to leave.
An exception is veterans and their kids, who benefit from 26 beds reserved through a partnership the shelter recently formed with the Veterans Administration. But instead of upfront money, the center will be reimbursed at the end of the fiscal year, based on how many vets it helped.
The paperwork was signed just last month and already 17 of the 26 beds covered by the grant are full.
As for other callers, Green tries to encourage them to stay with friends or relatives as long as possible, or to check out shelters in Belmont or Gastonia. In some cases when grant money is available the shelter will even offer to pay part of a utility or grocery bill, just to keep families from kicking out unwanted relatives and their children. It often works.
I tell women that, even if they get in here, theyll end up on a mat on the floor in the TV lounge, but they are willing to take anything, Green says.
Last night, we had 18 moms and children on mats in the upstairs TV lounge and eight single women in the downstairs lounge. And we had two sleeping in the cafeteria.
Green pauses, looks at her phone and sees four new voice messages have arrived in the minute it took her to make that observation.
She picks up the phone and starts dialing.
City help needed
Caldwell Memorial has taken in 25 to 50 women a night from the Center of Hope over the past three years, to help ease the overcrowding. It was supposed to be a temporary arrangement, lasting only six months.
The church will stop taking in women on Dec. 31 because of a lack of city permits to operate a shelter at the site and a lack of money to pay for social services required for the women.
Pastor John Cleghorn of Caldwell Memorial addressed the City Council on Oct. 28 to ask for help in solving the bed shortage. At the least, he believes the city should help replace the 50 beds lost by the closing of Caldwells shelter.
I heard crickets, he said, referring to the response. I think essentially their perspective is that we should be moving people more rapidly into housing programs and have as few shelter beds as possible.
But my question is: If you have someone on the street for mental health reasons, are they going to be able to maintain the apartment you put them in? Are they equipped for that?
Shelter Director Deronda Metz says the nonprofit shelter operates on donations from the public and gifts from foundations, and it doesnt have the extra cash needed to launch an expansion.
City Councilman James Mitchell believes the city should use $300,000 from the Housing Trust Fund to expand capacity by 30 beds.
The expansion could be done within the shelters existing building near uptown, and would result in an additional 120 families being helped a year. Shelter officials say the $300,000 alone is not enough, and they would pursue matching grants.
Obstacles to Mitchells idea include a belief by some council members that the money is better spent helping low-income people who have jobs but are struggling to maintain housing.
Council member Michael Barnes, who pressed the council last year to spend trust fund money on struggling working families instead of the homeless, would not speculate on the support Mitchells proposal might get.
What I would say is that its something the next council will continue to explore, said Barnes, referring to the the swearing in of the newly elected city council next month.
Mitchell, who leaves office Dec. 2, believes some of his peers on the council have a mistaken idea that the Center of Hope is nothing more than a place for the homeless to hang out all day.
I totally agree that we should not be spending dollars to build new shelters, he said, but Im OK with expanding an existing shelter that is all about providing services to help families get jobs, get social services and get medical attention.
The center has launched two housing programs in the past three years, both of which can get Mecklenburg County parents into housing in a matter of days if they are willing to get job training or go back to school.
Charlotte Family Housing and Community Link also have housing programs for homeless families, but participants need to be working at least 30 hours a week.
At the Center of Hope, Metz says there simply arent enough programs to meet the growing demand and not enough local landlords willing to take a leap of faith that the rent will be paid on time.
Between 30 and 40 families are waiting to enroll in the centers housing programs, says Metz. Meanwhile, more Charlotte families are falling into homelessness.
The result is a bottleneck that plays out on the floors of the shelter each night.
Help costs money
Crowding at the shelter will ease temporarily come Dec. 1, when the Urban Ministrys Room in the Inn program opens for the season.
It operates at the height of the winter and places the homeless with host churches, colleges and YMCAs for one night at a time.
In yet another sign of growing family homelessness, Room in the Inn served 78 families with 131 children last winter, nearly twice the number of families served the winter before, officials said.
Homeless advocates worry that this may be the worst season yet for families, when you combine cold weather with the growing crowds and the closing of the shelter at Caldwell Memorial.
Peter Safir, homeless services director for Mecklenburg County, noted there is no national guideline for how many shelter beds a community should have, so its all a guessing game.
And even if there was a guideline, he says, it would be rapidly changing based on a federal push to get people out of emergency shelters and into housing within 30 days. The goal is for shelters to no longer be the cornerstone of dealing with homelessness, he says.
The answer, experts say, is a combination of sufficient emergency beds with programs that help the homeless advance their education, get jobs and master their finances.
Until that happens, Barbara Green expects to continue receiving dozens of calls a day from homeless women in search of a way off the streets.
If the shelter is still full, Green promises shell take the time to listen to their sad stories, wait patiently as they cry, and not pass judgment when they yell at her.
I call it giving people another day of hope.
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