Charlottes only emergency shelter for women and children has been overcrowded for five years, but the problem reached absurd levels as temperatures became lethal last week.
Sixty-eight women and children some in pajamas, some wearing everything they owned were relegated to the floors of the Salvation Army Center of Hope, sleeping under tables, between chairs, behind doors and around the Coke machine in the cafeteria.
Its a problem the agency believes it can fix with a proposed 64-bed expansion. However, the cost is $1.4 million, and the Salvation Army needs the communitys help in raising the money.
Until then, homeless families face the prospect of sleeping on floors, if they can get into the shelter at all.
On the coldest nights last week, 355 women and children were crammed into the 255-bed shelter. An additional 31 women were taken by van to an overflow site at Victory Christian Church, bringing the total to 386.
They ranged in age from newborns to a 69-year-old woman, and the latest arrival was someone who knocked on the door at 3 a.m. Tuesday, as temperatures fell to 6 degrees.
The shelter ran out of beds, pillows, air mattresses, blankets and towels, and finally resorted to calling the local Red Cross late Tuesday for a delivery of 20 emergency cots.
Shelter Director Deronda Metz watched Tuesday night as the crowd swelled around her. Some women cried. A few were angry. One was so overwhelmed she simply stood in the hall, staring into space. Held tight in her arms was a bundled-up baby scarcely bigger than a basketball, and behind her was a set of triplets in pink coats and fluffy hats.
How can she be OK? Metz said, after trying to comfort the young woman. She knows shes out of the cold, but we dont have a place for her to sleep, and she has four children. She has no idea whats going on.
Metz believes Charlotteans simply dont know how bad the overcrowding is at the shelter, with babies and grandmothers sleeping on the floors at night.
If they did, she imagines, theyd do something about it.
It almost feels like this is a hidden problem, Metz said. For years now, weve had an agency response to trying to fix this, but its beyond us. The only way this is going to be solved is by a community response.
The proposed 64-bed expansion could be that response.
More families in need
Monday and Tuesday marked a record crowd for the Center of Hope, but it could have been much worse.
The Urban Ministry Centers Room in the Inn program which operates only in the winter hosted 63 additional single women on one or both of those nights as well as two families with children. Even more women stayed at the Red Cross Warming Station on North College Street on Monday and Tuesday, though the agency didnt have a count.
It was a different story at the Mens Shelter of Charlotte on North Tryon Street, which had more than enough beds, reflecting a nationwide decline in the number of homeless men.
By contrast, homeless families are on the upswing, particularly in Charlotte, which has seen annual increases of 10 percent to 36 percent over the past four years. Nationwide, the increase in 2012 was 3 percent, based on a 25-city study by the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
Of the 386 people taken in each night by the Center of Hope last week, 187 were children, and they ruled the halls in brightly colored pajamas, carrying toys and toothbrushes. Not far behind them were their mothers, dragging large bags filled with the familys ever dwindling personal belongings.
Among those sleeping on the cafeteria floor was an unemployed single mom named Michelle, 43, who says she brought her three children (ages 9, 12 and 17) to the shelter as a last resort. It was her 9-year-old who slept near the Coke machine, on an air mattress that turned out to have a slow leak.
Michelle lost her job after the company she worked for went bankrupt, and she says the family survived by doubling-up in the homes of friends. That ended last weekend when their host refused to turn on the heat because of her own money problems, leaving Michelle to conclude a crowded shelter was better than a freezing house.
Its our first time being homeless, so we slept on the floor with our arms crossed, so nobody could mess with any of my babies, said Michelle, who like other homeless moms did not want her last name used. Its cold on the floor, so we could use more blankets. But Im not complaining. My kids love it here because they found out they have classmates in the shelter.
Michelle is not sure what the family would have done had the shelter not had room. Some families sleep in their cars, she said. But I dont have a car, and if I did, youll run out of gas trying to keep it warm.
Experts say women like Michelle who double up in homes are the big unknown that makes it tough to know just how many homeless families live in Charlotte. The citys official numbers on family homelessness dont include those living doubled up and those in extended-stay hotels.
Vanessa, 28, and her 7-month-old son are an example of the latter. They were among the lucky ones who got their own bed at the shelter. The duo had been living in an $800-a-month hotel room until she ran out of money.
I feel blessed to have a roof over my head, even if it is crowded, she said. When you have a child, it gives you a whole new perspective. Youll drop your pride and do whatever it takes to get help. None of us want to be here.
Fixed by fall?
The Salvation Armys solution is to renovate the shelters vacant third floor to add more beds.
A low-profile fund raising effort has begun to raise the $1.4 million, with agency officials contacting past donors, along with city and county governments. That money would pay for the renovation, but the continuing cost to manage the extra beds has not been determined, officials said.
The expansion would allow the shelter to help 250 more families each year with rehousing programs, Metz said.
Maj. Bobby Lancaster, executive director of Charlottes Salvation Army, wants the renovations finished by Oct. 1. That would prevent the kind of problem seen this winter, he said. We have been band-aiding this overcrowding for a long time, and its time we came up with a remedy, he said.
Charlottes United Way supports the shelter expansion idea, along with former City Council member James Mitchell, who says its an embarrassment for the city to have women and children sleeping on shelter floors.
We have put a lot of energy around having transit plans and affordable housing plans, and I see this as another chance for the city, county and business community to work together, said Mitchell, who recently lost his bid for mayor and now intends to run for Congress this year.
Charlotte is far from the only city dealing with the problem.
Michael Stoops of the Washington-based National Coalition for the Homeless said the homeless population has shifted from mostly single men to more single women and women with children.
Women-with-children is consistently the fastest-growing segment of the homeless population, due in part to the economy, Stoops said. Theres not adequate capacity in family shelters. Overcrowding sounds bad, but at least theyre taking people. I think Americans would be repulsed by families literally living on the streets.
An expansion of the Center of Hope is one of the cheaper approaches to the problem, he said.
In Washington, a district law requires local government to pay for putting people in hotels if shelters are full on freezing nights, Stoops said. In 2012, he said the district spent $2.5 million putting people in motel rooms.
Meanwhile, New York City has a Department of Homeless Services with 2,000 employees, and an annual operating budget of approximately $800 million.
Adding beds is a controversial option because of concern shelters can make it too easy for people to avoid taking responsibility for their situations, experts say. Critics include the federal government, which is pushing communities to get homeless people more quickly out of shelters and into housing programs.
Nan Roman of the National Alliance to End Homelessness said one of the easiest ways to make Charlottes family shelter less crowded is to limit the amount of time people stay.
Its true that when you increase supply, it somehow always manages to fill up, Roman said. I think we need to keep pressure on ourselves to move people out quickly.
The average length of stay at the Center of Hope is 22 days, though Deronda Metz says that average includes women who left quickly without joining one of the agencys two rehousing programs. Those programs offer short- and long-term rent subsidies, based on how much help the parent needs to improve her finances.
However, Metz noted families must be in the shelter to get into those programs and they cant get in the shelter if there arent enough beds.
The Center of Hope has been so overcrowded this year that it instituted a policy in April of not allowing new admissions until someone inside decides to move out. However, the prospect of deadly winter weather caused the agency to suspend that policy on Nov. 1.
It will be reinstituted when the warmer weather returns, sending some families back to the streets.
Sabrina, 34, is a Center of Hope client who not long ago was living in a 20-year-old Cadillac with her husband of eight years and their four children, ages 2 to 13.
The details paint a surreal existence of morning baths in Walmart restrooms, days spent walking around grocery stores, and nights sitting in apartment parking lots, hiding under blankets from the police and apartment managers.
Still, she says, she managed to get the kids to school on time every day.
The couple moved to Charlotte from Virginia looking for work, and Sabrina says her husband recently found a job that could help turn their life around.
There are families just like us, who are still out there now, in their cars, she said.
When the temperature fell to 6, I told my children we needed to pray for them, and we did. My biggest fear was that we would be locked up and my children taken because I was a terrible mother. I think thats every mothers fear on the streets.
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