Charlotte group aims to end Mecklenburg County’s chronic homelessness within 2 years

A group of some of Charlotte’s most influential institutions is launching an ambitious plan to end chronic homelessness in Mecklenburg County, determined to move hundreds of people off the streets and into supportive housing.

They want to raise at least $11 million and end the problem within two years, the group will formally announce at a Tuesday news conference.

Of that money, $6 million would pay for a new 100-unit facility to house the chronically homeless and provide services, with the interest from $4 million used to operate the facility. The remainder would hire new outreach workers, provide training and pay for a project evaluation.

The group, with representatives from homeless and housing organizations and corporate, government, law enforcement, education and faith communities, intends to place more than 450 people considered the most vulnerable of the county’s 4,000 homeless in housing by late 2016.

Those most vulnerable often sleep on benches, in parks or in the woods and under bridges – the ones who have been homeless for more than a year, or homeless multiple times over three years. Many shun existing shelters and resist help.

“They are the people at greatest risk of dying in the street,” Dale Mullennix, executive director of Urban Ministry Center and the initiative’s project manager, said Monday.

The chronically homeless comprise 10 percent of Charlotte’s homeless population but use about 50 percent of the resources dedicated to helping and eradicating homelessness, Mullennix said. “These folks are the ones who fill our ERs. They’re the ones who spend a fair amount of time in our county jails,” he said.

The project won’t focus on “situational” homelessness, experienced by families because of a lost job or death in the family. Typically, those families turn to relatives or existing shelters and are able to find jobs and permanent housing within 60 days, Mullennix said.

“We’re talking about the long-term homeless, folks who are not going to escape homelessness primarily because of a disabling condition, which often-time is mental illness,” he said.

Benefits to taxpayers

To get the chronically homeless off the streets the initiative will employ a strategy called Housing First, which first places them in housing, then provides appropriate supportive treatment services. Those services can be for mental and physical health, substance abuse, education and employment.

The method is different, Mullennix said, from the traditional approach that required the homeless to sober up and get disability benefits before they were allowed into housing.

“With Housing First, we don’t wait for you to sober up or get income through disability,” he said. “We put you in housing first, before you die – and then get you support.”

The strategy has found success in cities including Jacksonville, Fla., and Nashville, Tenn., where hundreds of chronically homeless people have been placed in supportive housing.

Charlotte, too, has already seen progress through scattered supportive housing and “single-site” facilities like Urban Ministry-run Moore Place, and McCreesh Place, built by the nonprofit Supportive Housing Communities. Because of 250 new scattered and single-site units, the numbers of chronically homeless have decreased by 43 percent since 2010, the group said.

An additional 195 to 225 scattered or single-site units are planned by a variety of Charlotte groups. Yet the steering committee for the new initiative said a new 100-unit facility much like Moore and McCreesh places would be needed to end chronic homelessness.

Mullennix said he didn’t know where the funding would come from but estimated the new facility would cost about the same amount Urban Ministry spent to build Moore Place.

In its first year, Moore Place registered successes. In addition to transforming lives, a UNC Charlotte study last March found the facility saved $1.8 million by drastically reducing the amount of time tenants spent in emergency rooms (447 fewer days) and were admitted to hospitals (372 fewer days).

Statistics showed tenants stayed out of trouble more, with a 78 percent drop in arrests and 84 percent fewer days spent in jail.

Armed with that success, Urban Ministry plans to add 35 units this year.

Mullennix said those tenants cost the community $40,000 a year before they left the street; now, in supportive housing, they cost about $14,000 a year.

“We have plenty of evidence to show that the strategy works,” he said.

Got ‘to get very serious’

Finding homes for 450 chronically homeless is achievable, the group said.

Most will go into apartments scattered throughout Mecklenburg. Typically, tenants pay 30 percent of their disability income for rent. Much of the rest comes from federal Section 8 housing vouchers or Veteran’s Administration vouchers for chronically homeless veterans through the Charlotte Housing Authority, said Fulton Meacham, authority president and CEO.

The wait list for CHA was closed for years before it was opened a few months ago, when thousands filled out applications. But the authority already had made a decision that the homeless would get priority for vouchers.

Steering committee members of the new initiative aren’t sure yet how they’ll raise the money for the project, said Michael Smith, president and CEO of Charlotte Center City Partners, which convened the discussions over chronic homelessness in Charlotte 18 months ago.

Smith, Mullennix and Charlotte City Manager Ron Carlee agreed the effort is still in its early stages. Carlee said the money could come from private, public and fundraising sources – much like what was required to build Moore Place.

“We’re way upstream in terms of what the fundraising mix will be,” Carlee said. “For projects like this, a lot of different funding streams are cobbled together to make it work.”

Carlee and County Manager Dena Diorio said City Council members and county commissioners knew about the initiative but have yet to discuss it.

Smith called the project critical for the homeless and city.

“This is something we have focused on for the last six or seven years  but it has been rather episodic,” Smith said. “We addressed it more as a SWAT team and then backed off. Then another issue came up.

“But 18 months ago, we agreed this is an urban issue, it’s not seasonal. This is something we need to get very serious about.”

Some will resist help

Discussions on how to solve the homeless problem uptown began in 2008, when police began to crack down on homeless people congregated at “the wall” near the county-owned Hal Marshall Center on North Tryon Street. Homeless advocates and the faith community brought them food, but drug dealers and prostitutes also brought trouble, Mullennix said.

A debate last year over removing uptown benches where the homeless slept galvanized groups to find a “long-lasting solution,” Mullennix said.

This is first the time the issue has been given a concerted effort by so many important players in Charlotte-Mecklenburg – including Bank of America, Wells Fargo, the Veterans Administration and Foundation for the Carolinas – which generally is necessary to complete large initiatives. Bank of America already has donated $250,000 to the effort.

The effort will begin in late January, with volunteers spending three days scouring parks, bridges and camps to interview homeless people and count heads.

The group then will extend its outreach to a population that “is not necessarily seeking our services,” Mullennix said, “so we need to take the initiative to them. Some will actively resist help – an indication of mental illness. But I’ve been doing this work for 20 years and I’ve never met anybody who said, ‘I don’t want to live inside.’ ”

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