When plans for McCreesh Place were unveiled in 2002, some residents in the North Davidson Street area objected - passionately, even angrily. They claimed a housing project for recovering homeless addicts would bring down property values and jack up crime.
Eight years later, many of those same neighbors are welcoming news of McCreesh's $3.5 million expansion plan. In fact, the Villa Heights Neighborhood Organization participated in the ground breaking.
A Charlotte neighborhood welcoming the homeless?
It's seems implausible, given recent public protests to affordable housing developments in the Ballantyne and Ayrsley communities. But McCreesh Place is different, says Michael Gellar, president of the Villa Heights group, which represents about 800 surrounding homes.
"It's been an asset since moving in," says Gellar. "It's actually good for the community."
McCreesh Place is where the community association holds its meetings, he notes. It's also home for the Neighborhood Watch and has even hosted community bingo games.
And as for the formerly homeless men, he says they have endeared themselves to Villa Heights by volunteering for trash pickups at nearby Cordelia Park and Little Sugar Creek. "They even pass out our newsletters," Gellar says.
John Nichols of the Nichols Company, a commercial real estate firm, was among those who objected in 2002. He represented some of the area's commercial property owners. Their concerns were many, he says, not the least of which was an image of homeless men "hanging out on street corners all day."
That hasn't happened, he says.
"When I talk to the property owners (today), they are happily surprised that it worked out. I think it's a great example of what can be done."
The expansion of McCreesh Place from 63 to 90 residents comes at a time when Charlotte's homeless shelters are at capacity and leaders are struggling to create more affordable housing for the community's estimated 6,500 homeless. Two recent proposals - 90 apartments in the Ayrsley community and 86 apartments near Ballantyne - both met strong opposition from nearby residents. The Ballantyne project is no longer being pursued, but efforts continue to build in the Ayrsley area of southwest Charlotte.
McCreesh Place opened in 2003 as the first of its kind for the city: a single-room occupancy apartment complex (think college dorm suites) built for disabled men living in the city's shelters.
The facility has helped about 230 men, ages 18 to 84, many of whom were recovering alcoholics living at what is now known as the Men's Shelter of Charlotte.
Requirements for tenants include passing a criminal background check, agreeing to random drug testing and qualifying as disabled. The men are also expected to pay rent, 30 percent of their monthly Social Security disability or employment income.
The 9,472-square-foot expansion will consist not of single rooms, but efficiency apartments, with a preference for men with more fragile health. It should open next spring, officials say.
Charlotte Housing Authority is backing the project with a financing plan that brings together money from the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department and the Housing Trust Fund. The authority is also covering $100,000 in upgrades to the existing building.
Jermayne Cook, executive director of McCreesh Place, is credited with the outreach strategy that endeared the center to critics. This includes adding the center to the list of stops on NoDa's popular gallery crawl, with a series of guest artists. (The center's stop is alcohol-free.)
"We've done all we can to reach out to the neighborhood, because we knew there was fear about us being here. We needed to find a way to connect," Cook says.
"We also did it for our gentlemen, who needed to be able to link with the community. Many have been isolated, as a result of homelessness and disabilities. This is a way to get them involved again."
Marcus Arnold, 51, is among the residents who volunteers in the community, despite needing a wheelchair to get around. He lived at a men's shelter for three months before coming to McCreesh Place. Now, he regularly attends neighborhood association meetings, and helps with cleanups at Cordelia Park.
"I go to the park every day, and I like to see it clean," he says. "I'm a part of this community and I feel like it's my duty to help out. It makes me feel like I belong."