Charlotte emergency shelters expand beyond free bed for the night to housing

With the number of homeless men in Charlotte dropping 10 percent annually in the past few years, it would appear the Men’s Shelter of Charlotte is on track to be out of business.

Shelter Director Carson Dean says with pride that his agency is seeing 100 fewer men per night compared with last year, and 200 fewer than two years ago.

Economic improvements get some credit, but Dean says a key factor is a shift in the way Charlotte’s emergency shelters deal with homelessness.

No longer are they “warehousing the homeless,” as Dean puts it. Instead, the Men’s Shelter and The Salvation Army Center of Hope have adopted programs that encourage, if not nudge, clients into assuming responsibility for improving their status.

This means applying for veterans, unemployment or disability benefits, and using the checks to pay for rent and utilities. Limited rent subsidies are also offered, including Center of Hope programs that cover rent for up to three years while homeless moms go back to school and get job skills.

Those homeless who don’t comply face increasingly strict shelter policies, including rules that turn away people from out of town and those who make too much money.

It’s a shift that is not without concerns, including some who suggest tightening the admission policies means more people are on the streets.

But Dean and shelter leaders like him say statistics prove it’s working.

In the past four years, the Men’s Shelter has moved 1,000 men out of emergency beds and into housing, without the need for a big increase in the $2.8 million annual budget. The Center of Hope says it, too, has housed 1,000 women and children with programs focused on getting homeless parents temporary homes while they get job skills.

“We wrestled with this transition – from a complete open-door policy to one that says we want to help you, as long as you’re willing to help yourself,” said Paul Finnen of the Men’s Shelter board of directors.

“There was a great debate for the board. We all have an underlying anxiety that there may be a small number of men that we’re leaving out because of the requirements. But I definitely think we’re doing the right thing.”

An example of a success story is Prakash Heblikar, 66, who recently qualified for benefits with the help of Men’s Shelter counselors.

The native of India has lived in Charlotte since the 1980s, first attending college and later working in restaurants and country clubs. However, being on his feet for nearly 40 years took a toll and Heblikar developed a condition that caused him to lose his balance and fall at work.

He lost his job and ran out of money in 2013, with no relatives in Charlotte.

“The shelter helped me get my apartment in January,” he says. “The first week, I slept on the carpet because I had no furniture, but it was still fantastic. My family (in other parts of the country) stopped talking to me when they found out I humiliated them by going to a shelter, but they’re talking to me again. Life is good.”

Better still, he recently reconnected with an old girlfriend from his youth – “my first true love,” he says.

National trends

In addition to out-of-towners, people considered ineligible for a bed at the Men’s Shelter are those who make enough money to get into housing on their own and sex offenders.

The Center of Hope also turns away some homeless, but the key reason is overcrowding. A 64-bed expansion has been proposed, primarily so more women and children can be admitted and quickly enrolled into housing initiatives.

Such programs have become a national trend, based in part on federal guidelines that call for making emergency shelters – which typically get federal funding – for emergencies only. The federal expectation is that people should be in and out in 30 days or fewer.

However, both of the city’s shelters have had clients stay for months, and sometimes a year or more.

This was particularly true during the economic downturn, when the Men’s Shelter suspended all restrictions and was taking up to 600 men a night. (The shelter also suspends restrictions when the weather turns dangerous.)

Dean was hired in 2008, just before the start of the recession, and he says he made it clear to the shelter’s board that it would not be business as usual.

“I told them: ‘If you want someone to manage the shelter like it’s been managed, I’m not your person.’ I wanted to change things,” Dean says.

His plan called for reconfiguring the staff so they could devote time to helping homeless men find an income, whether it be through jobs or applying for benefits. He also began recruiting landlords across the city who were willing to rent to formerly homeless men.

Dean says the shelter set out to build this new model, but variations have been popping up across the country, spurred by federal stimulus dollars, says Denise Neunaber, executive director of the North Carolina Coalition to End Homelessness.

“The Men’s Shelter (of Charlotte) thinks outside the box more than anyone else in the state,” she says. “They’ve done more creative things, going beyond the limitations of government funding.”

An example, she says, is a Men’s Shelter program that first tries to get homeless men to move back with relatives. This includes using private dollars to arrange transportation for homeless men back home to other states, including US Airways flight vouchers.

The shelter reports 25 percent of the men it rehouses are reunited with family, saving Charlotte taxpayers thousands of dollars.

Charlotte is also breaking ground for creating a $20 million endowment that will be used to help stabilize homeless families and veterans. The endowment, launched by the Foundation for the Carolinas, will include half public money and half private dollars.

Deronda Metz, director of the Center of Hope, expects to benefit from the endowment money. However, she says the bigger obstacle her housing programs face is a shortage of landlords willing to take in formerly homeless women and children. She has 25 landlords, but she says she could use 50.

“Back when all this started, there were people who felt we’d be setting families up to fail and they’d be homeless again,” says Metz, who has been in the shelter business 24 years.

“But we had a crowded shelter full of people that other programs would not take the risk to help, because they weren’t seen as ‘ready’ for housing. We had a duty to go this route. Otherwise, these families might never get out of the shelter.”

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