After years of women and children sleeping on floors in hallways and the cafeteria, the Salvation Army Center of Hope has reached capacity and is turning away newcomers.
Last week ended with five households on a waiting list to get into the 274-bed facility, which has lately been hosting 351 people a night, said Deronda Metz, shelter director.
“People can only get in now if someone else leaves. And when that happens, we give them 90 minutes to get here, or the bed goes to someone else,” said Metz, who fears for the safety of women turned away. “You never know if they’ll end up someplace that is not safe to stay.”
The influx is linked to the April 1 closing of the Room in the Inn shelter winter program, which reported an increase this season of families seeking a place to sleep on cold nights. There were 90 families this season, compared with 75 in 2012-13, organizers say.
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Homeless advocates say that increase is part of the growing evidence that Mecklenburg County’s population of homeless families has yet to peak.
The county’s 2015 homeless count (done each January) recorded 401 people in the Center of Hope this year, compared with 337 last year. Children made up more than half the 401 people, officials said.
The shelter’s population typically thins after winter, but not this year. As a result, Metz says the closing of Room in the Inn made an already unmanageable situation even worse.
Room in the Inn, coordinated by the Urban Ministry Center, is a shelter supplement program, placing homeless people in dorms, YMCAs and churches during winter months. It filled 17,191 beds this season between Dec. 1 and March 31, said Paul Hanneman, who coordinates the program.
“The increase in families tells me that we just don’t have enough affordable housing in Charlotte to put them in,” Hanneman said. “Some of those families were married couples, with children. And we did have some with infants.”
Metz is among those who believe the problem is going to get worse, partly because the focus in recent years has been on solving homelessness among veterans and the chronically homeless. A recent survey showed the county’s population of chronically homeless people had dropped 36 percent in the past five years. The latter is a category that consists largely of disabled people and/or people battling addictions.
But Metz says progress is being made fast on behalf of families, including renovation of a third floor at the Center of Hope, 534 Spratt St., for use as a 64-bed dorm. It will open in June.
Mecklenburg County also recently launched a diversion program at the center, to place as many homeless people as possible with relatives and friends.
Since February, the diversion program, funded in part by a Wells Fargo grant, has kept 33 households (67 people) out of the Center of Hope, Metz said.
“What that means is, as bad as it is now, it could have been much, much worse,” Metz said.
LaShaye Worsley, 25, is among the women who managed to get into the Center of Hope in the past week. She went to the top of the list because of her three children, one age 4, one 5 and a 3-month-old infant.
Like many women at the shelter, she lost a job and home in the past year, prompting her to move in with friends. Tensions built, and within a few months Worsley and her kids were living in a weekly rate motel.
Their money ran out early last week, and she reluctantly came to the center. She says she has convinced her kids they are participating in an extended sleepover.
“I’m lucky to be in here, and I know it,” Worsley said. “The idea of my children being on the streets was more than I could take.
“I’ve talked to some people who have been here a year and some who have been here only a few months. I’m hoping to be out sooner than later. The quicker I can get a job, the quicker I’ll be out.”