South Charlotte

His mission in life: End homelessness

The Urban Ministry Center was created in 1994 as a collaboration between four churches - St. Peter's Episcopal Church, First Presbyterian, First United Methodist and St. Peter's Catholic Church - as well as partners from the business community.

The center's mission is to serve the poor and homeless, and Executive Director Dale Mullenix has led the center in that mission from the beginning.

Mullenix, 57, said working at the center is "exciting, scary and hopeful. You never know what is going to happen."

His goal, he said, is to end chronic homelessness, defined as being homeless longer than one year or homeless four times in three years.

One of the center's main goals is "to give the community at large the opportunity to serve," said Mullenix. Other goals include helping individuals escape homelessness, as well as educating the public in the reality of homeless neighbors.

Working with the homeless broadens people's worlds, said Mullenix.

Volunteers "are changed in a way," he said. "They don't listen to politicians in the same way, weather forecasts in the same way." When the temperature drops, said Mullenix, people might be more likely to think about the homeless after working with them.

Even if bus fares go up 25 cents, it can have a major effect on the homeless. For those who use buses as their only form of transportation, "it's a significant increase in the costs of living," said Mullenix.

Room in the Inn is a successful Urban Ministry Center program that relies on partnerships with more than 100 Charlotte-area congregations, schools and YMCAs. In the 2009-10 season, Room in the Inn provided warm, safe overnight winter shelter for 1,437 different people for a total of 17,465 nights.

The homeless participants at the center are grateful for the Urban Ministry's efforts. One person wrote on the center's website, www.urbanministry.org: "For moments each night, if I am fortunate, I sleep not as homeless in the street, but with warmth and friendship, thanks to Room in the Inn. Somewhere during the evenings of friendly faces, piping-hot showers, videos and jokes, laughs and sharing a smoke break, I was transformed from homeless to someone with a misfortune. I no longer view the world from ground level, where each may look down on me. I view the world from ground zero, where each may view my launch.

"I thank you, all who volunteer for this program. You have given me fortitude, I am sure that I am not alone in this."

Mullenix said Room in the Inn actually has had the greatest impact on the non-homeless population. Volunteers will come to donate a casserole, for instance, then stay to talk with the homeless.

"Hearing the people talk about their lives, (those volunteers) realize that we are much more alike than different," said Mullenix. "Then the volunteers ask, 'What's the next thing to do to be helpful?'"

Research is behind the decisions at the Urban Ministry Center. For three days last February, the Urban Ministry Center, with the help of local police, identified 807 chronically homeless individuals. Of those, 388 fit the definition of "vulnerable," meaning they had health issues that made them vulnerable to death on the streets.

Six have died since being identified.

Mullenix said the center is focused on trying to get those most vulnerable individuals housed. "Our goal is to get 115 housed by the end of 2011," he said.

As part of that effort, the Urban Ministry Center, along with David Furman and Centro City Works, will build Moore Place to offer 85 efficiency apartments with on-site support.

The apartments, planned for a 2-acre site off North Graham Street on Moretz Avenue northeast of uptown Charlotte, "will be the only option in Charlotte for chronically homeless women and a cornerstone piece of Charlotte-Mecklenburg's 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness," according to www.urbanministry.org.

The center's housing-first philosophy makes financial sense, said Mullenix.

"It costs the community $37,000 on average for indigent care," said Mullenix, "and you are not changing anyone's life."

When you put homeless people in housing with support services, it costs $10,700 per person, and you are changing lives for good, he said.

Mullenix, who lives in the South Park area, said "there are two subsidized housings within a half-mile" of his home.

"Nobody's property value has been affected. Crime hasn't gone up. Most homeless are victims of crime, not perpetrators," he said.

According to Mullenix, not a single study shows property values in stable neighborhoods have been affected negatively by having subsidized housing nearby.

"People like to speak from anecdotes and stereotypes," said Mullenix. "We prefer evidence and facts."

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