Homeless line up at Urban Ministry Center to escape the cold
Nearly every day, Charlotte’s homeless shelters are forced to turn away dozens of people. A limited number of beds often means long waiting lists, crowded facilities or plenty of individuals who must turn to homeless camps — or the streets — instead.
But as rents keep going up and the city’s homeless population continues to grow, what exactly can those shelters do?
The answer, according to a report released Thursday, should include standardized data and language, greater collaboration, and a push for more affordable housing.
The study, conducted by Mecklenburg County and the United Way of Central Carolinas, is the first to comprehensively assess the county’s emergency shelter system, which serves over 5,000 a year in facilities ranging from a 230-bed facility for men to a youth shelter that accommodates just nine people.
“Only by adopting a coordinated approach, within the broader context of homelessness and housing instability, will Charlotte-Mecklenburg truly impact the need for emergency shelter,” the report said.
Kathryn Firmin-Sellers, chief impact officer at United Way of Central Carolinas, said the emergency shelter system in Mecklenburg County is too often split into silos: women, men, victims of domestic violence, and youth, for example.
“We have to ask if we can safely break out of those silos to expand capacity,” Firmin-Sellers said.
Besides highlighting room for greater collaboration, the report also reaffirms the connections many shelter leaders see between their work and the city’s affordable housing crisis. They say that without more permanent housing to get people out of shelters, those facilities will continue to be full.
“Our current shelter system can’t meet (demand), but the answer can’t just be more shelter,” said Liz Clasen-Kelly, the executive director of the Men’s Shelter of Charlotte. “If the answer is more shelter, we’re just going to keep building and keep building.”
Holes in the system
The report highlights Charlotte’s gaps in serving certain demographics: Because the city’s two largest shelters are separated by gender — one for men, one for women and children — there is little space for couples or single fathers with children who wish to stay intact as a family.
The women’s shelter has three rooms for such families, but that’s hardly enough to keep many from sleeping nearby in cars some nights, said Deronda Metz, director of social services at the Salvation Army Center of Hope.
Families can also go to Room in the Inn, which sends them to a rotating set of volunteer churches, but the program requires them to pack up and move every night — and it only operates during the four coldest months of the year.
“This makes sure that our shelters address capacity challenges,” Metz said. “It’s not OK for us to have a shelter system that can’t serve certain populations.”
Homeless people who have serious medical conditions or who want to keep their pets also tend to fall through the cracks. The women’s shelter, for instance, has bunk beds spread across a three-story building, making it hard for individuals with disabilities to use.
In order to address these gaps, the United Way report encourages emergency shelters to standardize their procedures across the system.
While most of the city’s shelters label themselves as having “low barriers” to entry, that can mean different things from one facility to the next. Room in the Inn requires a breathalyzer test that keeps out substance users. And sex offenders are not allowed into the Community Shelter of Union County in Monroe, which was also studied as part of the report.
The report says the shelters could also better share information on empty beds. They have a shared database to track clients, but it doesn’t say how many beds are available in each facility every night, Metz said.
‘Fix the back door’
Metz said that in order to accommodate more people, shelters to be more intentional about immediately connecting their existing clients with job and housing opportunities as soon as they walk in the door.
But that can be difficult when the city as a whole is struggling to secure affordable housing.
“If we can fix the back door, the front door will take care of itself,” Metz said. “The front door’s not broken. It’s about getting people out of the building.”
During renovations last year, the men’s shelter increased its capacity to 410 beds across two facilities, on Statesville Avenue and just north of uptown Charlotte. But it still saw 100 people — and sometimes more — seeking shelter beds every day this winter, with the shelter only able to provide those individuals mats on the floor of its cafeteria.
“You cannot disconnect the shelter system from the affordable housing crisis,” Clasen-Kelly said. “At the end of the day, housing is the solution to homelessness.”
She pointed to a paper by two professors at the University of California, Berkeley, which found that tighter housing markets were associated with higher rates of homelessness: A 10 percent increase in rent, the authors found, was associated with a 6.5 percent increase in the incidence of homelessness.
Firmin-Sellers, of United Way, said a coordinated approach could mean teaming up on outreach to landlords. Although many shelters have staff that focus on getting clients back into permanent housing, it’s been a struggle to find landlords who will accept vouchers.
In the shorter term, she said, United Way is developing a shared pool of additional funding for the shelters. That would allow them to give clients small grants of money for expenses like a car repair, or a new pair of boots, that could then help them land a job.
But Metz said it’s not just shelters that should be working together.
“I’m just hoping that this is the beginning of us addressing the issues as a community, collectively,” she said. “We need the entire community to help us figure it out.”