Bank of America offers help for women sleeping on uptown benches

A plan to disrupt homeless loitering by removing benches at The Square remains on hold, but community leaders are moving ahead with other solutions, including a planned expansion of the city’s chief shelter for women.

Bank of America announced it is giving $100,000 to help expand the Center of Hope shelter for women and children – a donation that is being matched by the Leon Levine Foundation as part of a challenge grant.

Salvation Army officials say the combined dollars have put the construction campaign within $94,000 of its $1.4 million campaign goal – close enough to allow work to begin. The project should be complete by Dec. 1, bringing an additional 64 beds to the center just in time for the start of colder weather.

Surveys by the Urban Ministry Center have shown that 20 percent of the homeless sleeping around the intersection of Trade and Tryon streets are women, many of whom claim they were turned away from the Center of Hope due to lack of beds.

Deronda Metz, director of the Center of Hope, has been vocal about overcrowding at the shelter, but admits even she was surprised at the number of women sleeping on uptown benches.

“There are people who don’t want the shelter to expand, but this (donation) shows the community is paying attention and starting to understand the need facing homeless women and children,” said Metz, who has been part of a team doing the uptown surveys.

Some credit the controversial bench proposal with focusing community attention on the “outdoor shelter” that has formed at The Square recently.

Charlotte’s Homelessness Task Force and the Center City Partners unveiled the idea in July, proposing the city’s Department of Transportation temporarily remove benches in the four blocks surrounding Trade and Tryon streets.

Social workers have found as many as 60 people a night sleeping near The Square, many of them chronically homeless people who have addictions or disabilities. The Men’s Shelter of Charlotte has enough beds to handle the men, but many don’t stay there, for reasons that include mental illness.

Task force members said removing the benches was part of a broader community plan that would include helping uptown’s homeless apply for benefits and supportive housing.

However, critics said the plan didn’t take into account the city’s ongoing shortage of housing for the chronically homeless, due to a lack of money. Another complication was the lack of beds at the Center of Hope.

Charlotte City Manager Ron Carlee said last week that the bench proposal remains shelved as the city works with charities and businesses to find permanent solutions.

Carlee praised Bank of America for being among the partners who have helped. “The Bank of America contribution...is one of a number of efforts underway to deal with homelessness in a way that helps people achieve long-term stability,” he said.

Previous donors to the expansion include Wells Fargo and city’s Housing Trust Fund.

Charles Bowman, North Carolina market president for Bank of America, said he hoped the $100,000 donation would encourage others to come forward with the remaining $94,000 needed to meet the shelter’s $1.4 million goal.

Bowman said the bank sees shelter expansion as a critical community need, and was pleased the plan saves money by renovating existing space, rather than requiring new construction. The 64 beds will be placed in a third-floor space currently used for storage at the shelter.

The bank took no stance on the bench removal controversy, but was aware of the community discussion, officials said.

“Our philanthropic efforts at the bank are looking at critical needs and trying to find ways to make a tangible difference,” said Bowman, lauding the shelter’s approach of offering rent subsidies to women who pursue job skills training and college programs.

“This about the community coming together to solve a problem that continues to be a challenge.”

Metz said the expansion is intended not just to supply more emergency beds, but to get more women enrolled in housing programs. Currently, women can’t apply for that kind of help unless they are first living in the shelter, she said.

The Center of Hope has endured a bed shortage for about four years, but it worsened late last year when a 50-bed overflow shelter closed at Caldwell Presbyterian Church, partly due to lack of funding.

In recent years, the 250-bed shelter has taken in as many as 350 people, with an additional 30 beds provided by Victory Christian Center. Putting families on cots in hallways or mats on the floor of the cafeteria at night has become routine.

“We’ve (lately) had women sleeping in a chair in the lobby, because we didn’t even have space on the floors,” Metz said. “Hopefully, this renovation will put a stop to that: No more women on the floors.”

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