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Leon Levine Foundation gives $1 million to help homeless families, vets rebound

A once heavily debated Foundation for the Carolinas’ plan to get Charlotte’s homeless families and vets back into housing more quickly is $1 million closer to reality, thanks to a gift from the Leon Levine Foundation.

The $1 million donation means the Social Impact Endowment has raised $16.3 million towards its $20 million goal – a pot of money that will essentially remake how the city deals with parents who’ve lost their home due to lack of income.

That extremely vulnerable segment of Charlotte’s homeless population has increased annually by double digits over the last four years, leading to overcrowding in emergency shelters for women and children and waiting lists for charity housing programs.

Last week, when temperatures dipped below 20 degrees in Charlotte, the 250-bed Center of Hope shelter for women and children was taking in as many as 350 at night, including 202 children.

Leon Levine said he and his wife, Sandra, see the endowment proposal as a good fit for their foundation’s mission of helping working families become more self-sufficient.

“Safe, affordable housing is critical to making this happen,” he said.

Experts agree, but the issue is not without controversy, particular when it comes to where that affordable housing is located. Recent proposals to scatter affordable housing in outlying parts of Charlotte have met with protests, including a vote last week by the City Council to approve building 70 low-income apartments on Weddington Road in south Charlotte.

The Social Impact Endowment represents something of a middle ground on the issue, by placing low income families in existing apartment communities around the city.

Brian Collier of Foundation for the Carolinas said a study published last month by the National Bureau of Economic Research showed climbing out of poverty is a bigger struggle in Charlotte than other U.S. cities. One reason: The poor tend to stay poor in cities where they live segregated from middle-class neighborhoods.

“The goal of this program is to make affordable housing available through out the city,” said Collier. “If you mix income levels throughout the community, it makes for a stronger community overall. That’s when you see children moving up in the income brackets.”

Help starts this summer

It was Foundation for the Carolinas that first proposed the endowment idea to city officials, eventually winning a City Council pledge of $10 million over the next five years. Mecklenburg County will contribute thousands of dollars more in social services for the families.

Foundation officials have been working behind the scenes to raise the $10 million needed to match the city’s money, and hope to have the rest by June. The $1 million from the Levine Foundation comes just weeks after Levine’s son, Family Dollar CEO Howard Levine, gave $1 million to the endowment and challenged others to help.

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. As a result, it will start helping families on a small scale this summer and reach its peak in five years, helping up to 125 families annually, officials said.

Eliminating the runaround

Charlotte homeless advocate Darren Ash is working with the foundation to hammer out details of how the endowment will operate, including what services will be offered and how outcomes will be measured to prove success. Families and veterans in the program will be expected to become self-sufficient within two years.

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

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

Tom Lawrence of the Levine Foundation said a big part of the appeal of the endowment is that it has the city, county and nonprofits all working together to solve family homelessness.

“Something has to be done,” said Lawrence. “We hope this effort will create a model for solving family and veteran homelessness. It really is an opportunity for us to change the game.”

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