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National report shows 10 percent more homeless families in Charlotte than last year

Homelessness among families in Charlotte rose 10 percent last year, marking the fourth year in a row the city saw a double-digit increase in the category, according to a report issued Wednesday by the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

That’s more than twice the 4 percent average reported in other cities participating in the same national survey.

Still, the statistics indicate the growth of local families falling into homelessness is slowing – a point local experts dispute. In 2012, the same report had the city experiencing a 21 percent increase in homeless families.

The annual U.S. Conference of Mayors report is based on hunger and homelessness statistics gathered from 25 major U.S. cities, including three in the Carolinas: Charlotte, Asheville and Charleston.

Among the findings:

• The number of homeless individuals in Charlotte (those not accompanied by children) dropped by 17.5 percent last year.

• Shelters were unable to meet the need for a quarter of the people who sought a place to sleep for the night, due to overcrowding.

• An increase in homelessness among Charlotte families is also expected in the coming year, though the growth will be modest. This is based on projections of such factors as local economic conditions and unemployment.

• Among homeless adults, 10 percent are severely mentally ill, 7 percent are victims of domestic violence, and 5 percent are veterans.

Local homeless officials report that, on any given night, about 2,418 people in the community are homeless, including 952 in emergency shelters, 1,183 in transitional housing and 283 without any shelter.

An exact count of homeless families is not available, due to their often transient living arrangements. But the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools reports 4,770 children have been considered homeless at some point during the academic year, living in hotels or doubled up in someone else’s home.

Families included in the Conference of Mayors report were cited as living on the streets, in emergency shelters (234 people) or in transitional housing programs (888 people). Four youths were also reported as living “unaccompanied” in Charlotte shelters.

Critics say not including families living in hotels or doubled up in other people’s homes is a major flaw in the report’s conclusions.

“I’m adamant that 10 percent is the tip of the iceberg. … I’d say it’s three times that,” said Darren Ash, a housing and employment specialist for Charlotte Family Housing.

“If you go down Independence Boulevard or up North Tryon, those extended stay hotels are pseudo shelters – filled with people who are just hanging on by a thread.”

Local homeless advocates dispute the report’s prediction of only a modest increase in family homelessness in 2014.

Factors include a state decision to overhaul unemployment benefits, which disqualified North Carolina from getting federal dollars intended for those unemployed longer than 26 weeks, advocates say.

Food stamp benefits have also been cut. And there is also growing evidence that employers are dodging mandates of the Affordable Care Act by reducing their full-time employees, local advocates say.

“They will not give any employee more than 29 hours a week ... and these moms were often surviving only because they were working 50 or more hours a week,” Ash said.

Deronda Metz, director of Charlotte’s Center of Hope shelter for women and children, agrees with Ash, but lauded the report for pointing out the city lacks enough shelter space.

The 250-bed Center of Hope has been overcrowded the past three years and in April decided to cap admissions at 350, resulting in as many as 40 callers a day being turned away. It has lately begun accepting more families due to the frigid temperatures, but they’re sleeping on air mattresses on the floor due to lack of space.

“The report says we’re turning away 25 percent, but that doesn’t include the many who came to us but weren’t eligible to stay because they weren’t from Mecklenburg County,” Metz said. “For us, it has felt like we’re turning away a lot more people than we’re letting in.”

Charlotte Family Housing, the Center of Hope and Community Link are all finding success with rehousing programs aimed at getting families into stable housing with rent subsidies and social services.

The Foundation for the Carolinas and United Way are currently developing a project that will coordinate the programs of local housing agencies, making it easier for homeless families to get help.

Similar rehousing programs offered by the Men’s Shelter of Charlotte and the Urban Ministry Center are credited with contributing to the 17.5 percent decrease in homeless individuals cited in the survey.

The Men’s Shelter housed 288 men through Rapid Rehousing in the last fiscal year and has housed 214 in the first five months of this fiscal year, said Carson Dean, head of the Men’s Shelter.

Dean says about one-third of the men he deals with have some type of mental illness (the report says it’s 10 percent in the city) and 12 percent of the men in his shelter are veterans (the report says 5 percent).

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