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New Charlotte shelter plan diverts some homeless

Carson Dean, executive director of the Men’s Shelter of Charlotte, said his agency has been testing the diversion approach for about a year.
Carson Dean, executive director of the Men’s Shelter of Charlotte, said his agency has been testing the diversion approach for about a year. rlahser@charlotteobserver.com

The notion that all homeless men should be in an emergency shelter is being challenged by a new admissions policy adopted this month by the Men’s Shelter of Charlotte.

No longer will men automatically be admitted.

Instead, the Diversion Initiative will first investigate whether new arrivals have other options, including moving in with a relative or friend in Charlotte or elsewhere.

Diversion is estimated to reduce crowds at the shelter by 20 percent a year – about 300 fewer men. That would save money: an average of $26 per night for each man diverted, shelter officials said.

Carson Dean, executive director of the Men’s Shelter, said his agency has been testing the diversion approach for about a year, concluding that many men at the shelter have other housing options, but they need help making contact with people from their past.

“We recently had a man who showed up with a 5-year-old on a Friday. We couldn’t take the son, but we found the guy’s mother in Philadelphia and she was perfectly willing to let them live with her permanently,” Dean said.

“He didn’t know how to get there, or how to feed his son during the travel. But with a little financial support from our side, a bus ticket and some groceries, we arranged it. The father and son never stayed the night in a shelter and were not split up. We ended their homeless situation.”

The program is being initiated just days before the community’s Homeless Services Network is scheduled to release results of Mecklenburg County’s annual count of homeless people. That count seeks to reflect how many homeless people the city has on a single night, including those on the streets and in shelters.

Recent surveys have found homeless numbers in Mecklenburg are declining, in part because of new programs that get disabled people, veterans and families more quickly into housing. Last year’s survey showed a 17 percent overall dip in homelessness.

Dean says diversion, like many of the new housing programs, is part of the growing effort to make shelters the last option for homeless people, not the first.

One reason: National studies have revealed a costly social impact associated with homelessness, including job loss, family breakdown, health issues and an extended drain on public resources.

“The homeless automatically show up thinking they have no place else to go but a shelter,” Dean said. “But with a little family mediation, a little quick financial assistance or helping them brainstorm, we can find alternatives to entering the system.”

The Diversion Initiative will have an annual budget of about $50,000, partly for staffing and partly for incentives needed to persuade friends or relatives to take in a homeless man.

Dean notes that the program is only for men who arrive at the shelter’s door, having lost their housing. Other community programs, particularly Crisis Assistance Ministry, focus on helping those still in a home who are in danger of being evicted or having utilities cut off.

Carol Hardison of Crisis Assistance Ministry says diversion is a more compassionate way for the community to deal with people who typically feel powerless and isolated.

“Diversion empowers them to solve their own crisis – with the help of a case worker – before they’ve stepped over that line of being in a shelter,” she said. “Once they’re in the shelter, that responsibility to solve their problems shifts to the institution.”

Denise Neunaber of the North Carolina Coalition to End Homelessness says diversion programs are multiplying across the country, but not without challenges. For example, she says there’s no guarantee that moving a homeless man in with family or friends is a long-term solution.

“But for any program, there is always trial and error,” she said. “Success for Carson Dean and the Men’s Shelter of Charlotte is not higher numbers in the shelter. His job is to put himself out of business. That’s how you define ending homelessness.”

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