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UNC Charlotte report: Homeless project saved city $2.4 million

Bingo night is popular at Charlotte's Moore Place, a host site for the chronically homeless. Photos were taken on 04.28.15.
Bingo night is popular at Charlotte's Moore Place, a host site for the chronically homeless. Photos were taken on 04.28.15. mhames@charlotteobserver.com

An $11 million plan to put Charlotte’s 500-plus chronically homeless people into apartments got a needed boost this week from a new UNC Charlotte study that illustrates the millions of tax dollars to be saved from the initiative.

Using two years of data, UNC Charlotte researchers discovered Mecklenburg County already has saved $2.4 million by using that approach on a smaller scale at Moore Place, an 85-unit housing complex a couple of miles north of uptown for people whose disabilities and long-term addictions keep them living on the streets for years at taxpayers’ expense.

The study showed tenants made 648 fewer visits to emergency rooms and spent 292 fewer days in the hospital (at taxpayer expense) after they moved into apartments.

There was also an 82 percent reduction in arrests, and 1,050 fewer nights were spent in jail by tenants who had a history of criminal activity. Calls for medics and ambulance rides to the hospital also were down, each by 76 percent.

The report is being released at time when advocates for the homeless are campaigning to raise $11 million to end chronic homelessness in Mecklenburg County by the end of 2016. That $11 million figure includes $9.5 million to establish a 100-unit apartment site modeled after Moore Place.

Backers of the $11 million proposal include representatives from homeless and housing organizations, corporations, local governments and members of the education and faith communities.

National and local studies have shown chronically homeless people like those who live in Moore Place are the most costly part of the homeless population, because their life on the streets leads to frequent hospitalizations and arrests for minor crimes such as public intoxication and trespassing.

Stereotypes contradicted

Caroline Chambre-Hammock, head of Moore Place, said the report contradicts stereotypes about the homeless. For example, 81 percent of those who participated in the study were still housed in 2014. And their monthly income from Social Security increased, from $394 to $694, which they must use to pay toward their housing.

“This report proves the success we had during our first year was no fluke and the trends are continuing,” Chambre-Hammock said. “I hope the report will go a long way with that small segment of the community that still may not believe this model is the solution to a problem that has existed for years in Charlotte. This report proves Moore Place works.”

Mecklenburg County is believed to be home to more than 500 chronically homeless people, based on a three-day survey in January.

Charlotte is 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. The city’s plan is to house chronically homeless men and women through a variety of means, including the proposed 100-unit apartment facility, a 35-unit addition to Moore Place, and other apartments.

Beth Sandor of the national organization Community Solutions is guiding Zero: 2016, and she said Charlotte is viewed as one of the cities out front in meeting the goal.

“Charlotte is doing all the right things,” Sandor said. “This isn’t a lofty goal. Its within our reach … if communities like Charlotte make it clear they will not be a place where very sick people are allowed to live on the streets.”

Carolinas HealthCare Systems supplied grant dollars to do the report, along with the Duke Endowment.

Kristin Wade, assistant vice president of nursing services for Carolinas HealthCare, said the $2.4 million cited in the report is based on hospital charges at Carolinas HealthCare and Novant Health. Costs for uninsured patients are typically borne by the hospital, taxpayers and other patients, who pay higher insurance rates as a result, she said.

Advocates for Charlotte’s homeless say the biggest surprise in the report was just how fragile Moore Place tenants are. The site, at 2435 Lucena St., had nearly a seven percent mortality rate among tenants since it opened in 2012, officials said.

The youngest tenant in the study was 36, but 75 percent were over age 50, which is higher than the national average in permanent supportive housing, the report says.

“I think that’s because there were no options for these people in Charlotte for so many years,” Chambre-Hammock said. “Their lives were filled with trauma, sleeping with one eye open, wondering if they would be a victim on the streets … it’s just not safe to sleep outside exposed to the elements.”

Housing first

Just under 80 percent of those featured in the study had two or more disabling health conditions, mental health disorders or addictions. And the report further concludes that nearly half met the criteria to be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Lori Thomas of the UNC Charlotte College of Health and Human Services directed the report. She said the findings dispute a long held belief that homeless people need to be “made ready” before moving into housing.

Permanent supportive housing programs such as Moore Place take the opposite approach, supplying the housing first, then working to help the formerly homeless overcome their health and income challenges. Tenants are not required to have an income or benefits of any kind to move in.

“You can’t just put someone in housing and say their problems are solved,” Thomas said. “But what this report is showing us is that the supportive housing provided by Moore Place has a very high housing stability rate. Relying on temporary shelters is an inefficient use of tax dollars. If you can’t get behind the compassionate response, then maybe you can get behind the most efficient response, which is Moore Place.”

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