Charlotte's 'massive’ homeless count expands its reach

Charlotte’s $11 million push to end chronic homelessness within two years takes its first big step this week with the most comprehensive survey ever done of people living on the city’s streets.

A team of 250 volunteers will spend three days searching camps, shelters, jails, soup kitchens, hospitals and the library in uptown for homeless people. Organizers are also asking the public for tips on locations of little known or new homeless camps.

Charlotte has had a homeless count of this type since at least 1990, but they lasted only 24 hours and used only about 100 volunteers.

The Thursday through Saturday count is aimed at finding out how many of Charlotte’s estimated 2,000-4,000 homeless fall into the category of chronically homeless – those who stay homeless for years because of addictions and/or mental illness.

Chronically homeless people are often in fragile health and at risk of dying on the streets. Experts estimate each one costs local taxpayers an average of $40,000 annually, because of public dollars spent on time in courtrooms, jails and hospitals.

A group of Charlotte’s most influential institutions launched an $11 million plan on Jan. 6 to end chronic homelessness in Mecklenburg County by the end of 2016. The plan is called Housing First Charlotte-Mecklenburg. A key component of the plan is a 100-unit facility to house the chronically homeless.

It’s believed about 450 of Charlotte’s homeless people are chronically homeless. However, nonprofit leaders such as Pam Jefsen of Supportive Housing Communities believes the survey will find previously unknown people who are chronically homeless.

“The reality is, if we are to end chronic homelessness – and that is our goal – we need to know who they are, where they are and how many there are,” said Jefsen, one of the organizers of the Point-in-Time Count. “I believe it is every human being’s right to have a safe place to sleep at night, and with the chronically homeless, it’s less expensive to put them in housing rather than have them sleeping on the streets.”

The 250 volunteers – all wearing yellow scarves – will begin as early as 5 a.m. Thursday, visiting locations where the homeless are known to live or congregate.

Among the sites to be visited are homeless camps in wooded areas, where police say anywhere from two to 15 people at a time live in tents. Ages range from the mid-20s to the 70s, police say.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department will send plain-clothed officers to the camps with the volunteers. Police say they know of the camps either through complaints from property owners or 911 calls from the homeless themselves.

“We’re sending along someone to make volunteers feel comfortable going into the camps,” said Capt. Mike Campagna of CMPD. “It’s not a matter of us thinking it’s dangerous.”

Liz Clasen-Kelly of the Urban Ministry Center describes the survey as a “massive community engagement effort.” The result will be more than just a count, she says. A registry is to be created, showing which among the homeless are most vulnerable and in need of rapid housing.

“The reason we’re creating such a push this year is because we’ve never had this level of community resolve before to end chronic homelessness,” Clasen-Kelly said. “Our volunteers will carry a message of hope to these people.”

Last year’s 24-hour count showed a 17 percent dip in overall homelessness in the county, which charity experts attributed to the success of rehousing programs run by agencies such as the Men’s Shelter of Charlotte, the Salvation Army Center of Hope and Charlotte Family Housing.

However, some categories increased last year, including veterans, unaccompanied youths and the chronically homeless. Clasen-Kelly said the increases were likely because volunteers are doing a better job tracking down the homeless. Last year, volunteers found a man in fragile health living in a tent near Nations Ford Road, she said. Temperatures were below freezing.

“He had been homeless for several years, living off the radar,” she said. “His first question to volunteers was, ‘How did you find me?’ ”

That man is now living in Moore Place, a permanent housing community considered a model for dealing with the chronically homeless. Tenants are surrounded by social workers and health programs that stabilize their lives, and many qualify for disability or public assistance benefits to help pay the cost. It’s the type of program that the recently unveiled Housing First hopes to replicate.

The Urban Ministry Center’s executive director, Dale Mullennix, is project manager for Housing First. Other key players include Foundation for the Carolinas, Charlotte Center City Partners, Wells Fargo, the Veterans Administration and Bank of America, which gave $250,000 to gather experts and cover some early costs.

It’s the second time in recent months the bank has given money to help the city’s homeless programs. In August, it donated $100,000 toward the $1.4 million needed to expand the Center of Hope shelter for women and children.

Charles Bowman, Bank of America’s North Carolina and Charlotte market president, said the $250,000 is a way to get Housing First “off and running, rather than waiting around.”

“The idea is to get this done over the next two years, and if we are going to make significant headway, we need to jump-start it,” he said.