A breakthrough on homelessness

At last.

Years after they might have, Charlotte’s leaders seem to have summoned the power and commitment necessary to truly tackle the problem of chronic homelessness.

For years, Charlotte did little beyond treating the symptoms – offering crowded shelters and soup kitchens. Then, over the past six years or so, advocates took bigger, more ambitious bites. They got serious about solving the problem, not masking it, and three years ago opened their crowning achievement: Moore Place, 85 apartments mostly for folks who had lived on the streets for years.

Now, a breakthrough. This morning, some of Charlotte’s most influential leaders will come together and vow to end chronic homelessness in Mecklenburg County within two years.

Mere words, you say? Perhaps. But the breadth and influence of those involved, the specificity of their goal and the public nature of their oath combine to make this a signal moment in the evolution of this community’s approach to its most destitute residents.

What’s their magic plan? What innovative breakthrough have they found to erase a scourge nearly as old as the city itself?

There isn’t one. It is simply a commitment by all the stakeholders – corporations, nonprofits, government, houses of worship, the health care industry and others – to do what must be done. They pledge to get 450 hard-core homeless people off the streets and into apartments, with supportive services to help keep them housed.

This has been the solution all along. Charlotte’s response to homelessness has long been episodic. What has been needed is a public commitment from the highest leadership of all the involved sectors. Accomplishing the goal will still take tremendous dedication and, especially, creative funding. But with the coalition that is assembled, the battle is half-won.

To be clear, this initiative aims at eliminating chronic homelessness, housing those people who have lived on the streets for a year or more and have another disabling condition like mental illness or drug addiction. It does not address the thousands of situationally homeless – those who find themselves temporarily out of a permanent home because of a job loss or other setback. Many other organizations and initiatives are attempting to whittle that problem down.

Some will ask if we can afford to do this. In fact, we can’t afford not to. Studies suggest that a chronically homeless person costs the community close to $40,000 per year in emergency room visits, nights in jail and other public costs. Moore Place houses residents for about $14,000 a year. That suggests the community could spend some $10 million less per year by moving the 450 people off the streets and into safe housing.

The effort is just now being launched and questions abound. Some of the biggest: How to cobble together the $12 to $15 million needed over the next two years? How to persuade those homeless who don’t seek the help? How will the community react? What objections might elected officials raise?

Those answers will come. Charlotte has shown it usually accomplishes what it sets out to do. Now it has set out to end chronic homelessness.

At last.