Charlotte’s population of chronically homeless people has dropped 36 percent in the past five years, leading Dale Mullennix of the Urban Ministry Center to renew a recent pledge to end chronic homelessness in Mecklenburg County by the end of 2016.
The drop – from 807 to 516 – was revealed by a three-day January survey that had 250 volunteers searching shelters, soup kitchens, hospitals, jails and campsites for chronically homeless people, who remain without housing for years due to addictions and mental illness.
Mullennix credited the 36 percent drop to more programs aimed at helping the chronically homeless. In fact, he says, progress is being made so quickly that 37 chronically homeless people have been housed since the count was completed.
“I have felt apprehension, or fear, every day about saying (in January) we could end chronic homelessness by the end of 2016. But I am so encouraged by what we’ve already accomplished that I believe we can do it,” Mullennix said.
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The survey marks the first time in five years that Mecklenburg County has done a comprehensive study of its chronically homeless. The last time, in 2010, the Urban Ministry used the survey as an opportunity to create a registry of the most vulnerable people living on Charlotte’s streets.
A goal to find housing for all of them within two years was announced in January, when the Housing First Charlotte-Mecklenburg Initiative proposed building a 100-unit facility for the chronically homeless, similar to the existing Moore Place apartments north of uptown. The new facility will cost $11 million, with $6 million for construction and the remainder to help run it.
Housing First is a partnership of 26 organizations working to end chronic homelessness in the city. Among the backers is Charlotte Center City Partners, which has a stake in the issue because most of the chronically homeless are within a half-mile of uptown, the survey showed.
Michael Smith of Center City Partners said the steep drop in the number of chronically homeless does not suggest the $11 million project isn’t needed.
“I think a 36 percent decrease is great news, but it doesn’t hurt the effort,” Smith said. “If anything, it says we continue to get better at what is being implemented.”
Chronically homeless people have been a challenge for Charlotte for years but began making headlines last year, when uptown residents raised concerns about an increased number of homeless people sleeping at night on benches, in yards and in other people’s cars.
Community leaders proposed removing some uptown benches temporarily to disrupt the practice, but the idea was later shelved.
Chronically homeless people are a segment of the homeless population who are most apt to die on the streets, because of their poor health, disabilities or addictions. They also are a part of the homeless population that costs taxpayers the most, because of frequent visits to jails, hospitals and emergency rooms.
A UNC Charlotte study released last year about Moore Place, which houses 85 chronically homeless people, revealed the facility had saved the community $1.8 million in its first year, based on the hundreds of days it kept people out of hospitals and jails.
Mullennix said apartment communities are just part of the answer, however. The Urban Ministry Center also has a scattered-site approach that houses 90 former chronically homeless people in apartments throughout the city.
Liz Clasen-Kelly of the Urban Ministry said federal vouchers are helping with that approach, particularly in the case of homeless veterans.
She says the city needs at least 450 additional permanent supportive housing units for the chronically homeless. Plans are in the works for 200, she said.
The oldest example of permanent supportive housing in the city is McCreesh Place, operated by Supportive Housing Communities. It has 91 units, plus 50 scattered-site apartments.
Pamela Jefsen of Supportive Housing Communities says the 36 percent drop is to be celebrated, but that taxpayers should be concerned about dollars being spent on the 516 uninsured chronically homeless people still frequenting emergency rooms and hospitals.
“Those are expensive services, and it’s a cost we could save if we had them all in housing,” she said.
“Then there’s the moral argument that we are a better community when we are providing everyone with a safe place to sleep.”
County’s chronically homeless
Chronically homeless people were found scattered throughout Mecklenburg County.
▪ Average age: 46.
▪ Average number of years homeless: 6.32.
In terms of length of homelessness, 117 people reported 10 years or more of homelessness; 28 people reported 20 years or more.
▪ Gender: 433 male, 82 female; 1 transgender.
▪ Military service reported: 56.