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Homeless family endowment gets $1 million boost

Charlotte’s proposed $20 million endowment to house and stabilize homeless families is closer to a reality this week, thanks to a $1 million donation from Howard Levine, CEO of Family Dollar.

Levine said he intends the money to be seen as an invitation to the community to help Foundation for the Carolinas raise $10 million needed to match $10 million pledged by the city for the endowment.

His $1 million – combined with money given by anonymous donors – puts the campaign at the $5 million mark, said Brian Collier, a senior vice president with Foundation for the Carolinas.

“We’re a huge step closer to reaching the $10 million goal. But, I’m even more appreciative of his endorsement of the program and willingness to rally the community,” Collier said.

“I believe his desire to couple his gift with a pledge to raise awareness will be a game changer for how we talk about housing in the future.”

It’s not the first time Levine has tried to use his name to raise awareness of a cause, though never before at the $1 million level. In recent years, he has given challenge grants to such agencies as Hospitality House and the Red Cross, helping them meet campaign goals.

His latest gift comes at a time when homelessness among Charlotte families has risen by double digits annually for three years, resulting in an overflow at emergency shelters and waiting lists for affordable housing programs.

Levine said he has become more aware of the issue as a result of frequent visits to Family Dollar stores in “tough” areas where families are struggling.

“They come in with $10 trying to buy food for a family to eat dinner and other necessities and they simply don’t have enough money. You see them making tough choices,” Levine said.

“It disturbs me to see how no one is taking ownership of this issue. I see this endowment as a solution. It’s how we can do our share to help.”

The endowment’s mission is to combine stable housing with social programs that will enable homeless families to be self-sufficient within two years.

Foundation for the Carolinas introduced the concept to city officials earlier this year, and the City Council agreed to give $10 million over five years. Mecklenburg County will contribute thousands of dollars more in social services for the families.

Under the terms of the endowment, it’s the annual interest or dividend earnings from the combined $20 million that will go toward fighting family homelessness, officials said.

Charlotte homeless advocate Darren Ash is working with the foundation to hammer out details of how the endowment will work, including what services will be offered and how outcomes will be measured to prove success.

Among the biggest changes, he said, is a new approach that will have the endowment setting standards for the charities helping homeless families, rather than the other way around.

“In order to access money from this endowment, agencies will have to meet certain standards. ... There’s probably 30 different metrics that will be measured,” Ash said.

“It will change the way a lot of nonprofits work. It’s a shift from a single agency focus to a community focus.”

Charlotte’s United Way is at work on another major component of the project: a coordinated intake system that will eliminate the runaround homeless families face when trying to find help.

The result, say agency officials, will be a five-county safety net that will eventually link the resources of 40-plus housing services agencies.

United Way is the largest annual provider of money for housing service agencies in the community, which puts it in position to prompt nonprofits to work together, officials said.

Dennis Marstall of United Way said the agency is also working to get exact numbers of how many homeless families live in Charlotte and how many emergency beds are available.

Counting homeless families has long been a challenge, because many stay in hotels until they run out of money, or they double up with friends or relatives for as long as possible.

A recent sample survey conducted by the nonprofit Loaves & Fishes revealed 34 percent of its clients in the county were sharing living space with friends or relatives, up from 26 from last year, officials said.

Levine noted a federal cut in food stamp benefits that went into effect Nov. 1 is making things worse for such families.

“Without a home, these people can’t do so many things, including get a job and stay in school,” Levine said. “My money is committed now, along with the city and the county’s money. We can make this thing work.”

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