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Lack of permanent housing hurts effort to help chronically homeless, initiative says

Ronnie White, 59, programs his television after turning it on for the first time in his new apartment in June. The Army veteran had been homeless for about 18 months in Charlotte before getting the apartment.
Ronnie White, 59, programs his television after turning it on for the first time in his new apartment in June. The Army veteran had been homeless for about 18 months in Charlotte before getting the apartment. jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

A lack of permanent housing for Mecklenburg County’s most vulnerable homeless people continues to dog efforts to help them, leaders of a community initiative told county commissioners Wednesday.

Housing First Charlotte Mecklenburg launched in January 2015 with a goal of ending chronic homelessness by 2016. The initiative’s steering committee has extended its work into 2017.

The chronically homeless, who are frequently afflicted by disabilities or addictions, comprise about 10 percent of all homeless people in the county but require 50 percent of the money spent to help the homeless.

The initiative, which is supported by 27 organizations, says the annual cost to the community is nearly $40,000 for each chronically homeless person, largely for medical expenses such as repeat emergency room visits. The cost of supportive housing for them, UNC Charlotte has estimated, is about $14,000 each per year.

The initiative has made significant progress: 454 of the 516 chronically homeless people identified in a 2015 census are now in permanent homes. But 330 remain to be housed.

“We have been able to reach and transform the lives of people, many of whom were assumed would spend their lives on the streets,” said Dale Mullennix of the Urban Ministry Center.

A major obstacle in completing the initiative’s work is in finding more homes in the face of an unexpectedly large increase in the chronically homeless. The initiative set a goal of creating 250 units of permanent supportive housing.

Last June, the initiative announced it would build a 120-unit apartment project in west Charlotte. The $12 million cost was to be raised through donations, with completion expected in 2018.

But the project drew opposition from Charlotte City Council and neighbors who live near the proposed site off Wilkinson Boulevard. The initiative decided to instead focus on scattered apartments to house the chronically homeless, Mullennix said, while not completely giving up on the idea of a single large housing site.

Commissioner Trevor Fuller expressed frustration at the impasse.

“Somehow we have to develop the courage as a community to do what we say we’re going to do,” he said. “The question now is, are we truly committed to doing it? “

Charlotte-Mecklenburg was one of about 75 communities across the country working to end chronic homelessness by the end of 2016 as part of a national effort called Zero: 2016.

Bruce Henderson: 704-358-5051, @bhender

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