Agencies to link up to assist homeless in Mecklenburg County

Mecklenburg County charities plan to test a new homeless service system next month that will have them operating hand-in-hand for the first time.

The goal is to prevent homeless people from being referred from one agency to the next as they struggle to get off the streets.

Called “Coordinated Assessment,” the new approach is being unveiled Thursday during a forum at the Knight Theater in uptown for the city’s faith community, which is being encouraged to participate.

United Way helped craft the approach, which will station social workers at five agencies in the county where the homeless can go for help. Those social workers will be responsible not only for knowing which programs are the best fit for a homeless individual, but which have real-time data on available beds at any given moment.

They will also look for ways to keep people from ever entering a shelter by offering to pay small bills, such as a month’s worth of utilities.

Coordinated Assessment, which will test launch May 6, is part of a charity-led movement to simplify how homeless people – and those on the verge of homelessness – can find help in Mecklenburg County.

Foundation for the Carolinas is among the driving forces, having launched the creation of a $20 million endowment to stabilize homeless families and help recently discharged veterans in need of immediate housing.

Brian Collier of Foundation for the Carolinas said Thursday’s unveiling is a turning point in the way Charlotte deals with the homeless.

“This is going to be a more efficient, more effective system ... and it will be more compassionate,” Collier said.

“It’s possible now for so many to get lost in the confusion of where to turn for help. This shows how our community can pull together on very challenging situations and do the right thing.”

Mecklenburg County will play a key role in making the system work, by supplying five social workers who’ll assess homeless individuals and families looking for housing. The Men’s Shelter of Charlotte and Charlotte Family Housing will supply additional staff.

The Men’s Shelter is one of five entry points, along with the Salvation Army Center of Hope, Innovative Community Resources, Crisis Assistance Ministry and the Urban Ministry Center.

Stacy Lowry, director of Mecklenburg County Community Support Services, said the county has long been placing social workers at housing charities. But the new approach will standardize how they deal with the homeless, including determining who should get help first: families and people who have been homeless multiple times.

“Currently, we placed the onus on the homeless individual or family to find the right door into the system. We have created one door to go through now, but it’s at any one of five places,” she said.

An example of the new system at work would be if a homeless family went to Crisis Assistance Ministry, which helps with rent and utility payments. Rather than only refer them to the Center of Hope shelter for women and children, a social worker at Crisis Assistance would handle their intake, including letting them know whether shelter beds could be found.

Dennis Marstall of United Way, which used a Wells Fargo grant on the approach, said the plan is to have a “soft launch” next month to work out the kinks by Aug. 1, when the system will become formal. This could include pinpointing areas where help is lacking, such as shelter beds for men with children, he said.

Data may also reveal that some housing charities consistently have open beds, due to eligibility requirements. That might result in changing some of those requirements, he said.

It’s estimated 40 congregations will be represented Thursday at the Faith Forum on Helping the Homeless, where the system will be unveiled. Many of the congregations have a track record of helping the homeless through Room in the Inn, which provides shelter beds and meals for the homeless in the winter. Other faith programs provide funding and even furniture to the homeless moving from shelters into housing.

“Charlotte has a poor history of collaboration and true partnership,” said United Way Executive Director Jane McIntyre. “It has been more efficient in the past to do it by yourself. But it is more effective and long lasting if you do it together, so much bigger, so much better.”

She added that Coordinated Assessment, the new $20 million endowment and the work of congregations are all pieces of the puzzle needed to improve the state of homelessness in the county.

Coordinated Assessment is being launched as part of a mandate by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. HUD is pushing communities that receive federal shelter dollars to get the homeless into housing more quickly.

Charlotte’s charities began shifting their missions to reflect that mandate in recent years but have run into obstacles that won’t be easily remedied, said Carson Dean of the Men’s Shelter of Charlotte.

“We still have capacity issues and waiting lists, and this new (Coordinated Assessment) approach won’t fix that. That will require resources for housing subsidies and more affordable housing,” Dean said.

The $20 million endowment being championed by Foundation for the Carolinas will offer some relief for families and veterans. The endowment, made up of $10 million from the city and $10 million from private donors, will begin operating later this year.

Deronda Metz of the Salvation Army Center of Hope said Coordinated Assessment offers hope at a time when the center has had to close its doors to new admissions due to lack of space. She hopes that will change under the new approach.

“When you’re homeless and you call us, you want answers,” Metz said, “and what’s good about this new system is that it will help with those answers.”