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Rise in homeless families predicted during annual count this week

Volunteers and a police escort look for the homeless living under bridges near North Graham St. in Charlotte during one of the city’s annual homeless counts. The 2016 survey starts Wednesday of this week and will determine the extent of homelessness in the city.
Volunteers and a police escort look for the homeless living under bridges near North Graham St. in Charlotte during one of the city’s annual homeless counts. The 2016 survey starts Wednesday of this week and will determine the extent of homelessness in the city. jwillhelm@charlotteobserver.com

Mecklenburg County’s annual count of homeless people kicks off late Wednesday, and organizers are predicting the number of homeless families will increase for the second year in a row.

It’s a belief based in part on reports that the Salvation Army Center of Hope and the Urban Ministry’s Room in the Inn shelter program are seeing more homeless women with minor children.

The Center of Hope is over capacity, with 425 women and children, and Room in the Inn says the number of families showing up nightly for beds is up by one-third over the same time last year, from 40 families to nearly 60.

An annual count of the homeless is required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and is intended to provide a snapshot of how many people are sheltered in homeless programs and unsheltered on any given night. Last year, 2,001 homeless people were counted in the Charlotte area, a 1 percent drop from 2014. Since 2010, the city has seen a 29 percent drop in homelessness.

Mary Gaertner, manager of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Coalition for Housing, is asking the public to submit tips on where homeless camps can be found this week at www.housingfirstcharmeck.org/referrals.

Gaertner believes overall homelessness will drop again this year, but she expects to find more homeless families.

“It’s very worrisome to us. We acknowledge there has been an increase, and we’re really taking a look at that,” said Gaertner, citing the community’s lack of affordable housing as a probable cause.

“Affordable housing in Charlotte and Mecklenburg County is a hot topic now. We’ve watched the community explode with new apartment complexes, but every one is market rate to the tune of $1,000 to $1,100 a month. The families who are experiencing homelessness can’t afford that.”

Numbers released by the Charlotte Housing Authority 14 months ago showed 4,449 of the more than 32,000 adults on the wait list for Section 8 housing were considered homeless. That included not only people in shelters but some staying in hotels or living with friends.

The increase in homeless parents has been most troublesome for the Center of Hope, which opened a 64-bed expansion in July to ease overcrowding. Six months later, women are once again sleeping on the floor because of a lack of beds, said Deronda Metz, director of the shelter.

“We have more homeless people working jobs than ever before, but they still can’t afford housing,” said Metz. “It’s scary to say it, but not all people with jobs can afford housing, and we don’t have enough subsidies to help every one of them.”

A community program to tackle the issue of family homelessness is being crafted and should be unveiled in coming months, say organizers.

The annual homeless count is critical to nonprofits because it shows where problems lie and which programs are having an impact. Charlotte charities are seeing successes on two fronts: housing veterans (374 homeless vets were housed last year) and housing chronically homeless people (a 36 percent drop in the chronically homeless in five years). The latter is a subgroup of the homeless that is considered in fragile health because of disabilities and addictions. They typically live on the streets for years.

Among the volunteers participating in this year’s count is Justin Markel, 47, who was chronically homeless for four years. He now lives in the nonprofit Moore Place apartment community, which has stabilized his life to the point that he has been appointed to serve on the city’s Housing Advisory Board.

“I became homeless after moving to Charlotte and losing a job in 2007, and the worst night was the first night,” he recalls. “I walked around the city all night, afraid to sit down, lay down, or talk to anybody. I just kept walking, and wondering how I had let myself get in that position.”

It’s that recollection that he’ll keep in mind Wednesday, as he enters camps in the woods or under bridges. Contacts made that night will likely save lives, he says.

“The longer you are homeless, the more you begin to realize you need to have a conversation with people, who may or may not help you. You never know when you’ll find that person.”

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