February 23, 2014

New program helps Charlotte’s chronically homeless families

New charity program to help most desperate of homeless families: the disabled with no job skills.

The most troubled segment of Charlotte’s growing population of homeless families is soon to get help under a pilot program being launched in March by the nonprofit Supportive Housing Communities.

The target is a small group of chronically homeless parents who don’t qualify for other programs: those who aren’t working, don’t have marketable jobs skills and may never be able to hold a job because they are physically or mentally disabled.

Chronically homeless families make up an estimated 30 percent of the tenants at Charlotte’s chief shelter for homeless woman and children, the Salvation Army Center of Hope.

Pam Jefsen of Supportive Housing Communities considers them the families who are falling through the cracks in Charlotte’s social safety net, which accounts for why all of them have a history of being in and out of shelters, hotels or living in autos.

Her vision is a program similar to her agency’s McCreesh Place community, which is permanent supportive housing for homeless adults with disabilities. Most receive disability benefits, and they pay 30 percent of that toward rent. The same arrangement also would apply to homeless families in the new program.

It’s kicking off with five families placed in apartments as early as April 1, she said.

“Nobody is serving the most vulnerable and hard-to-serve families,” Jefsen said. “Programs are generally looking for homeless families with a certain amount of income or a certain amount of hours worked each week. Those families with no work and no income have no place to go, other than an emergency shelter.”

Catholic churches open coffers

Charlotte’s population of homeless families has been rising steadily since 2009, with annual increases of between 10 and 36 percent. Experts attribute the growth to layoffs and employers cutting back on pay for already low-wage jobs. Another factor is newcomers who are moving to the city in hopes of finding jobs.

As a result, more nonprofits are offering programs aimed specifically at homeless families. However, all require parents to either have jobs or be working toward improving their financial status with skills training or college. Time limits are also imposed, which is challenging for chronically homeless families.

St. Matthew and St. Gabriel Catholic churches have agreed to fund the first year of the new program with $100,000. Both congregations have a history of being involved in causes that aid Charlotte’s homeless.

Monsignor John McSweeney of St. Matthew said the church was attracted to the new program because it combines housing with the social services needed to get families back on their feet.

“My hope is that it’s a successful innovation and we’ll evaluate whether to further fund it,” McSweeney said.

Permanent supportive housing programs for homeless people have proven to be a big success in cities around the country. The two best-known in Charlotte are Moore Place and McCreesh Place, both of which connect homeless adults with benefits that can help cover their rent bills. Those program do not impose time limits on their stay.

Studies show such program save taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars by keeping chronically homeless people off the streets and out of jails, emergency rooms and hospital beds.

Dealing with opposition

Still, projects to provide affordable housing to low-income and homeless families have met with strong resistance from communities outside the Center City. This includes an apartment community that Supportive Housing Communities proposed in 2012 for Elizabeth. The plan fell apart in the face of strong opposition.

Since then, Jefsen and other housing charities have adopted a “scattered site” approach that places low income and homeless people in apartments around the community. The new program for homeless families would follow that approach, she said.

“We could spend a year putting together a plan to build another apartment community like McCreesh Place, only to have it not funded due to public opposition,” Jefsen said.

“There are still too many people on the streets and the one thing we can do for them now is put them in apartments.”

Among those who support the new program is Deronda Metz, director of the Center of Hope, which offers its own housing programs for parents who have jobs or are working toward employment.

“I’d say 70 percent of the families in the shelter just need a job and they can get back on their feet. The others have a disability or a history of trauma that prevents them from getting employment,” Metz said.

“For them, there has been a gap in the system that no one wanted to address because it’s tougher. The money is not there. Funders want to see families that are moving to self-sufficiency. The families helped by this new program are the ones stuck in shelters.”

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