She remembers family outings as a teenager to a Charlotte McDonald’s and her father seeing someone sipping coffee but looking like he needed a meal.
Her father didn’t finish college and constantly worked a series of jobs to support his family. He didn’t make a lot money. But there he was, sharing what he had with that hungry customer.
He’d pull over and offer stranded drivers a ride. His bedside table was forever stacked with charity solicitations, and he’d give what he could.
Robert Chambre never talked about why – he just did it. Yet his kindness and compassion for people, no matter their lot, apparently wore off on his daughter, Caroline, who at 40 has spent half her life working to end homelessness.
She’s now director of HousingWorks for Urban Ministry Center, overseeing Moore Place north of uptown, which provides apartments for 85 chronically homeless men and women, who are the most at-risk of dying on the street. She also oversees scattered site housing that shelters another 90 people.
It is a cornerstone to Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s 10-year plan to end homelessness. The residents number 61 men and 24 women. On average, they have lived on the street for seven years – one resident for 30.
The chronically homeless cost taxpayers an average $39,450 per person in frequent hospital admissions and nights in jail, according to the Urban Ministry. The ministry has identified nearly 1,200 chronically homeless among Mecklenburg’s 5,000 homeless men, women and children.
“People don’t want to be homeless,” Chambre said. “They don’t want to be marginalized. Housing gives them dignity and the chance for others to see them for who they are. I can’t tell you how many times a resident at Moore Place has come to me and said: ‘I feel I’m someone again.’ ”
‘Examples of resiliency’
After graduating from South Mecklenburg High in 1992, Chambre went to UNC Chapel Hill, where she earned degrees in English and French in 1996.
She had no idea what she wanted to do, except that there was this nagging need “to give back” she had acquired from her father.
So she told her parents she was going to New York City for a yearlong internship with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. She’d make $85 a month in living expenses. She’d also be provided meals and a room on the fourth floor of a Queens convent.
Her parents said no. At 21, she was too young.
But she went anyway and was assigned to work with the nonprofit Common Ground, an organization that by 1996 had converted a decaying Times Square Hotel on West 43rd Street into quality permanent and transitional housing for 650 homeless men and women. They renamed it The Times Square.
She was assigned to help develop a sense of community among residents. She organized programs and brought in a series of speakers and musicians for concerts.
“After three months I knew I loved the work,” she said. “I loved the men and women I worked with – they were such examples of resiliency.” At the end of the year, Common Ground offered her a full-time job to run the tenant service department and then to oversee intake.
She had dreamed of the Peace Corps, but “the idea of leaving the country and living overseas for two years intimidated me.”
She continued at The Times Square for six years. Then at age 28, she decided to make the leap to the Peace Corps. “I thought, ‘If I never do it now, I won’t do it,’ ” Chambre said.
Again her parents were ambivalent.
Off to Peace Corps
She dug in once more. The Peace Corps sent her to a village of 3,000 people in tiny Burkina Faso in western African.
There she found more culture shock – a 28-year-old unmarried, childless white woman in a village that had never seen a white person.
“I was old by their standards to not have a husband or kids,” Chambre said. “Here I was coming from the anonymity of New York to a village where I really stuck out.”
They built her a mud hut with a tin roof. A satellite radio was her only connection outside. A friend regularly sent AA batteries.
The language was a barrier, though Chambre could use her French degree to communicate with some of the villagers. Still, she also had to deal with 50 indigenous languages.
“It could be a very isolating experience,” she said.
Yet once she got to work, she won the village’s respect. She was assigned to a medical clinic, staffed largely by a nurse and midwife. She helped it become more efficient, using modern techniques of setting goals and establishing a budget.
She helped nurses educate villagers on the importance of proper hygiene and getting children vaccinated.
When she left two years later, the vaccination rate had dramatically improved. She was touched by the villagers sharing their meals and seeing her off when she left.
“I was really proud of what we did,” she said. “I felt like we saved a lot of lives.”
‘Couldn’t say no’
Chambre returned to New York in 2003 and got a Masters of Public Administration at New York University.
She was working for the Peace Corps office when Common Ground called again and offered her a job as director of The Times Square building. “I couldn’t say no,” she said. “I loved that building; I loved the people.”
At 32, she was the youngest director.
Five years later, her father, Robert, suffered a massive stroke; Chambre flew home to Charlotte on weekends to help her mother look after him.
She began to think about moving home. The economy had soured, and “it wasn’t the best time to think about quitting your job.” But that year the Urban Ministry enlisted Common Ground to advise them on building housing for the chronically homeless.
Chambre was part of a three-person team that came down for a week. Urban Ministry had just posted the job for Moore Place director. She moved back in April 2010 to take over Moore Place and be close to her mother and ailing father.
Liz Clasen-Kelly of the Urban Ministry said the “stars were aligned” when they were able to hire Chambre.
“We are really fortunate to have this national leader in Charlotte,” Clasen-Kelly said. “She cares immensely about the people we serve.
“Our vision is that we can end chronic homelessness in Charlotte and with Caroline’s experiences and leadership, we fervently believe we will.”
Now Chambre is spearheading a drive to raise $4 million for Moore Place II, an expansion to take another 35 chronically homeless off the streets. They’re past the halfway mark, with $1 million coming from Charlotte City Council.
All residents get support from social workers, nurses and people who can help them manage money and mental illness issues.
“We don’t just give them a key and say, ‘We hope it works out for you,’ ” Chambre said. “What makes a difference is the support they need to remain housed. I’m very proud that we’ve grown the HousingWorks program from 14 units to 175. With 35 units at Moore Place added next year, that’s 210 vulnerable individuals no longer homeless.
“I believe chronic homelessness can be ended in Charlotte.”
Reporter Mark Price contributed to this article.
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