Will Charlotte deal with crisis?

If you lose your job and end up homeless in Columbus, Ohio, there's a good chance you'll be back in a house or apartment in less than a month.

In Minneapolis, within about five weeks.

In Charlotte, people live in emergency shelters for years. Even before the recession, the city's homeless population grew while the numbers decreased in Atlanta, Asheville and Raleigh.

Charlotte, advocates and public officials agree, has not made ending homelessness a top priority. It relies on emergency shelters despite a national emphasis on getting homeless people into affordable housing within a few weeks.

Nan Roman heads the National Alliance to End Homelessness and points to success and innovation in many cities, but not Charlotte. “Where you see real progress,” she said, “you definitely see political will there. In Minnesota, the county council and the state and the city have all been very determined with their plans to end homelessness. Same in Columbus.”

In Columbus, Ohio, the director of the Community Shelter Board said ending homelessness is considered “a moral foundation” of her city.

“It's a community ethic,” said Barbara Poppe. “We haven't figured everything out. We're always learning. But at the end of the day, working together, there's truly a community obligation to this.”

Poppe said the city's success traces, in large part, to attorney and developer Mel Schottenstein, now deceased, who rallied the community to end homelessness. “There are a lot of yardsticks which you can and should use to measure the quality of life in your town,” he once said, “but surely one of the crucial yardsticks needs to be: How well does the community take care of its own? How well does it take care of those in need?”

Miami, too, owes much of its success to a business executive, the late newspaperman Alvah Chapman, who persuaded the Florida legislature to let Miami impose a 1 percent sales tax at larger restaurants to pay for housing and programs for the homeless. The nonprofit Community Partnership for the Homeless built two homeless-assistance centers that have served 72,000 people since 1995.

Thinking has changed

Success has come in communities where the leaders of the effort have no vested interest, said Martha Are, homeless policy specialist at the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. The best plans, she said, are shaped by business principles.

Though Charlotte is among 850 cities with 10-year plans to end homelessness, the plan is just that: a plan.

There's been a lot of talk, a lot of meetings, a lot of reports. Nonprofits and churches have worked hard and effectively. But if you become homeless, you've got to figure out where to get help; there's no single telephone number or place to go.

Mayor Pat McCrory said efforts to end homelessness have not been well-coordinated. He added: “We've passed affordable housing bonds for capital structures, and I question whether we should use that for new homes or use that in better ways for those out on streets…. Our thinking has dramatically changed since the bonds were passed.”

Since 2002, voters approved $67 million in bonds to help finance affordable housing. Only one in three of the new units are affordable to the very poor, including the chronically homeless and minimum wage workers, who face a shortage of housing in their price range. Most of the completed units rent in price ranges where there's a surplus of housing.

“The demand is going up, and the supply has been a real challenge for the city,” said Carol Morris, a consultant who helped research and write Charlotte's 10-year plan to end homelessness. “The affordable housing issue really hasn't reached the crisis level in people's minds.”

Unless you're struggling to afford a place to live. Then it's a crisis. A teacher's assistant at a public high school said she was evicted last summer when she worked a lower-paying temporary job while the schools – and her paycheck – were on vacation.

She doesn't want you to know her name. She doesn't want her students to know she's homeless. “I'm 40 years old, I've always had a job, but low income,” she said. “Charlotte has a big problem with clean, decent, affordable places to live.”

She earns $12 an hour and lives with her 5-year-old daughter at Charlotte Emergency Housing, a 14-bedroom shelter. Among the other residents are a fast food worker, a day care worker, a retail salesperson, a health care worker, a bus driver and an administrative clerk.

All have jobs, but none can afford a home.

Two types of homelessness

For much of the 20th century, a fundamental promise of our country was that every American would have safe, decent, affordable housing. There wasn't much homelessness up through the 1970s.

Then Congress, beginning in the 1980s, decreased the amount of subsidized housing. It eliminated rules requiring that part of each public housing complex be set aside for the very poor, and it no longer required cities to replace affordable housing lost to demolition. While the amount of affordable housing decreased, the number of people who needed it most increased. There are different reasons, including rising housing costs, deinstitutionalization of mental health patients, the return of Vietnam veterans with post-traumatic stress disorders, the spread of crack cocaine.

Homelessness became a national problem.

Now at least 5,000 people, possibly as many as 8,000, don't have a permanent place to sleep in Charlotte. The economy, and 11.4 percent unemployment, are making it worse.

There are two types of homeless people: People with chronic disabilities who need special services in addition to housing. And people who simply need affordable places to live. This larger group does not differ much from poor people who have a home. It includes the teacher's assistant. And Gina Lujan.

Lujan, who is 31, said she ended up in the Salvation Army shelter after fleeing an abusive relationship. She was working at a day care for $7.45 an hour. She stayed in the shelter nine months and paid off debts. With the help of the nonprofit WISH, she and her 5-year-old son moved in August to a two-bedroom apartment in an affordable housing development run by The Housing Partnership. There, rents range from $325 to $565.

Even so, Lujan could not afford the apartment without help. The WISH program pays half her $500 rent and provides counseling, budgeting and mentoring. As Lujan becomes more self-sufficient, the goal is to wean her from the program.

She recently found a higher-paying job working for the nonprofit Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America. Lujan, once without a home, now counsels people in jeopardy of losing theirs.

Practical reasons to care

If not for humanitarian reasons, advocates say, there are practical reasons to care about homelessness and affordable housing. Housing keeps children in school and out of foster care and shelters. It helps adults stay employed.

But perhaps the most compelling reason is money, said Philip Mangano, of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. It costs more to house people in shelters, jails and emergency rooms. For 30 years, Mangano appealed to people's morality; now he cites 65 cost-analysis studies.

“These are literally some of the most expensive people to the public purse in their random ricocheting through very expensive health and law enforcement systems,” he said. “The cost ranges from $35,000 per person per year to $100,000 per person per year. The irony is we're paying $35,000 to $100,000 a year to maintain people in homelessness.”

Putting the chronically homeless into housing also frees up shelters for the situationally homeless who, studies show, are generally able to rebound more quickly. But housing alone isn't the answer. The key to ensuring that homeless people don't return to the streets, Martha Are said, is to provide support services for as long as needed.

“Housing in and of itself has therapeutic value,” she said. “It needs to be the first one. Then you can add other services to the plate. Wherever you put them, it's the services that make the difference.”

In Charlotte, the nonprofit Urban Ministry Center moved 13 chronically homeless people into permanent supportive housing last year, and results of that Homeless to Homes pilot program are so encouraging that the center hopes to raise $6 million to expand the project.

“What we discovered is that housing is so key for these folks, most of whom have been homeless 10 years or more,” said the center's executive director Dale Mullinax. “Some have gone to work, some are going to CPCC for classes, some enrolled in substance abuse programs, and they're doing great things.”

The program costs $10,750 per person per year. That's less than a third of the $37,000-a-year the center calculates a homeless person costs taxpayers in hospital visits, jail time and other expenses.

“You really don't honestly have to care about homeless people to like this program,” said Kathy Izard, who heads the Homeless to Homes project. “It will save our community money.”

A matter of timing

A recession may not seem like a good time to take on affordable housing and homelessness. But there are reasons, advocates say, that the timing is right.

Charlotte's mayoral candidates both say the problem needs to be addressed.

The city is getting $1.93 million in federal stimulus money to help prevent homelessness and rehouse people rapidly.

Former City Council member Pat Mumford, a longtime volunteer on housing issues, was recently named to oversee the city's troubled Neighborhood & Business Services office. Advocates believe Mumford will help the city address its housing needs.

The Foundation for the Carolinas, a philanthropic organization that distributes money to charities, has made housing a priority.

“Whether you think it's the right thing to do, or whether you think it's the most cost effective way to do it, this community needs to tackle its housing issues,” said Brian Collier, a senior vice president at the foundation.

“There are other issues out there, obviously poverty and education.”

Housing, he said, must come first.

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