A Charlotte woman known for focusing attention on ending chronic homelessness has been named the new leader of the Men’s Shelter of Charlotte on North Tryon Street, one of the largest emergency shelters for men in the Southeast.
Liz Clasen-Kelly, an executive with the Urban Ministry Center in Charlotte, takes over the agency at a critical time, when affordable housing is in short supply, federal housing dollars have more strings attached and North Tryon Street businesses are pressing it to move elsewhere for the sake of property values.
Clasen-Kelly starts Sept. 6, replacing Carson Dean, who resigned in February after leading the shelter eight years.
The Men’s Shelter of Charlotte, just north of uptown, hosts between 350 and 400 men a night. During the recession, the numbers were as high as 600.
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Clasen-Kelly comes to the Men’s Shelter with a reputation as an innovator, pushing the community to try a variety of methods to reduce Charlotte’s population of chronically homeless people – those most apt to die on the streets.
Most of the chronically homeless have disabilities or addictions that keep them living on the streets for years and even decades. Clasen-Kelly was known for leaving her office to join teams on the streets, back alleys and woods to document their numbers.
“I don’t think you can spend five minutes with Liz and not come away energized about ending homelessness,” said Will Alston, chairman of the board of directors of the Men’s Shelter. “She has a passion for the homeless, she’s a visionary regarding partnerships with other agencies and … she places a high value on justice.”
Clasen-Kelly, who is married to Observer reporter Fred Clasen-Kelly, comes to the shelter at a time when the agency is facing new challenges. Apartments that serve as affordable housing are in short supply. And government dollars have been diverted from building public housing in favor of an approach that spreads low-income people across cities in existing apartments.
There is also a growing push from business leaders in Charlotte to see fewer homeless people loitering along North Tryon Street. That pressure has intensified in advance of the 2017 opening of the 9.3-mile Blue Line light-rail extension, expected to spur 10,000 new housing units, with nearly 4 million square feet of offices and 1.3 million square feet of retail.
Prior to his departure, Dean defied pressure to move and launched a $7 million fundraising campaign to renovate the existing building. However, publicity over that campaign has waned. Alston says the board is simply waiting to give the next executive director a chance to have input. Support for the renovation has not wavered, he said.
Asked to comment on the push to move the shelter, Clasen-Kelly said only: “I’m committed to being as effective as possible to end homelessness for the men.”
Clasen-Kelly, a Davidson College graduate, began working with the community’s homeless as a volunteer in 1997 and eventually took on the role of associate executive director of the Urban Ministry Center. The center is a leader in working with both men and women living on the streets. Among its many successes is the Moore Place apartment community, which is a national model for helping homeless people apply for benefits that supply money for rent.
Dale Mullennix, executive director of the Urban Ministry, predicts his agency and the shelter will end up working together more closely after Clasen-Kelly takes over.
“Liz is the type that never gives up,” said Mullennix.