Mecklenburg County, Charlotte closer to ending veteran homelessness

Linda Brown stands in her new home in east Charlotte after experiencing homelessness twice. Housing Our Heroes, a collaborative program aiming to end veteran homelessness in Mecklenburg County, helped her move into her duplex.
Linda Brown stands in her new home in east Charlotte after experiencing homelessness twice. Housing Our Heroes, a collaborative program aiming to end veteran homelessness in Mecklenburg County, helped her move into her duplex. jmcfadden@charlotteobserver.com

An ambitious plan by Mecklenburg County and the city of Charlotte to house more than 200 homeless veterans last year exceeded its benchmark, helping 374 veterans find affordable places to live.

With an estimated 40 veterans left to be housed, it’s the closest the county has come to ending veteran homelessness in recent memory.

Unlike past campaigns that tried to do the same, the Housing Our Heroes program links together two local governments, various charities and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to tackle an issue that one official said is beginning to trend downward.

“It’s really coming to a point where I think we have a handle on our homeless veteran population,” said Jim Prosser, Mecklenburg County’s director of veterans services.

Officials launched the campaign on Veterans Day in 2014 to meet first lady Michelle Obama’s Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness. The goal then was to house 204 veterans in Mecklenburg County. That number jumped as organizers compiled a registry that lists, by name, each homeless veteran officials and volunteers were able to find.

Among the program’s milestones was the opening of Tyvola Crossing Phase II, a 20-unit housing complex in west Charlotte where 17 low-income veterans now live with their families.

“No one who has worn the uniform for our country should be living on our streets, and we’ve got to realize that,” said Mary Gaertner, neighborhood program coordinator with the city’s neighborhood and business services.

Last year, two North Carolina cities – Fayetteville and Winston-Salem – succeeded in ending homelessness for military veterans. Raleigh and Durham expect to celebrate that milestone in the coming months.

Charlotte could be next: “The goal of ending veterans’ homelessness is very close,” Gaertner said.

That won’t eliminate all homelessness, but it shows that the city, county and VA’s new system ensures “any new episodes of homelessness are rare, brief and non-recurring,” she said.

“People are still going to become homeless,” Prosser said. “What this new process helps us do is find them early on and get them into housing much quicker.”

‘A wonderful blessing’

Linda Brown has been homeless twice, but that’s over now. The 67-year-old Army veteran from Gastonia lives in a two-bedroom duplex in an east Charlotte community that links to Independence Boulevard.

She has a living room and, on the wall, a photo of late movie star James Dean: “I was in love with him back in the day,” she said. Across from it, a photo of Jesus Christ she found in a dumpster: “I said, ‘How can they throw you away, Jesus? Well, you’re coming with me.’ 

She has a kitchen, a curio cabinet and porcelain dolls.

But she’s no stranger to hardship.

Amid recession in the 1970s, she and her children spent hours in the unemployment line for $58 a week. Years later, she battled depression after her son, Jamie, died of brain cancer at age 19. She attempted suicide three times.

In 2010, she underwent a surgical procedure on her feet that stopped her from working. She lost her job and her home.

“I was too young to retire,” she said. “I was between a rock and a hard place.”

She found help from Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing, a Department of Housing and Urban Development program that offers veterans vouchers to rent privately owned housing. She moved into her home. She later left the program and lost access to vouchers when she moved to Alabama to care for a friend battling cancer.

Last year, she returned to Charlotte, homeless again. Then, “by the grace of God,” her HUD-VASH social worker told her about Housing Our Heroes.

“It’s a wonderful program,” Brown said. “I just thank God every day. It’s a wonderful blessing.”

Hard to find

An estimated 185 veterans in Mecklenburg County were found taking refuge in cars and abandoned buildings, or accessing services such as emergency shelters or transitional housing, on a single night in January last year, according to a report from the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute.

That’s up from 157 veterans found in 2014, and 120 in 2013, and is an overall 10 percent increase since 2010, said Ashley Williams Clark, the institute’s data and research coordinator who co-wrote the report.

The study uses numbers from a point-in-time count, meaning volunteers spent one night looking for veterans who fit HUD’s definition of homeless, which includes living in shelters or places considered unfit for human habitation, she said. It does not consider people living with family or friends, or sleeping in hotels or motels.

Because the tally is on a single night, the number of homeless veterans in the county who meet that criteria could very well be higher. “You’re always going to have people coming in and out of our system. There are going to be people accessing services, who are in camps we can’t find,” Clark said.

Nearly 50,000 veterans live in Mecklenburg County, the study shows.

“What we are discovering is that it’s very hard to find a chronically homeless veteran,” said Dale Mullennix, executive director of the Urban Ministry Center. “We’re making wonderful progress.”

Efforts to curb the issue may have grown more collaborative, but officials say the number of people Housing Our Heroes helped last year reflects the plight veterans still face in Mecklenburg County, where affordable housing is becoming hard to find.

“It was a surprise for us to learn that the population was larger than we had anticipated,” Gaertner said.

How it works

Once veterans are determined eligible for Housing Our Heroes, HUD-VASH helps them get housing vouchers from a local housing authority. The amount of the subsidy is completely based on their income and doesn’t mean all expenses are covered, said Kimberly Stephens, a HUD-VASH supervisor who oversees offices in Charlotte and Salisbury.

“Even veterans who have no income still have financial responsibilities they have to handle,” she said. “Their housing may be covered, but there are still going to be those utility bills, getting food to the house, transportation to and from employment.”

The goal is to get recipients to a point of self-sufficiency, whether that means financial independence or kicking a drug habit, she said.

In an orientation class, recipients get a rundown of expectations, Brown said: Pay your bills. Pay your utilities. Stay out of trouble. No drugs. No alcohol. No parties. Social workers perform surprise visits, but she doesn’t mind.

“They’re helping you on your rent,” she said. “They’ve got to come in to make sure you’re not doing drugs, that you’re paying your rent and not living high on the hog.”

Brown likes the autonomy the program gives her. After months of searching, she chose her house herself.

“They let you be the captain of your own ship,” Brown said. “You find a place you can afford, where you’ll be happy, you’ll be satisfied, you’ll be safe.”

News & Observer staff writer Martha Quillin contributed to this report

Jonathan McFadden: 704-358-6045, @JmcfaddenObsGov

Priority list

Veterans who get priority in Housing Our Heroes, via HUD-VASH, include: veterans with a disability of some sort, veterans who have a long period of homelessness, female veterans, veterans who are 60 years old and older, and veterans who have served in Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation New Dawn.