Heartening signs on homelessness

The Observer editorial board

A new initiative helped Alfred Gorman find housing.
A new initiative helped Alfred Gorman find housing. dlaird@charlotteobserver.com

When a coalition of community groups announced in January that it plans to end chronic homelessness in Charlotte by 2016, the goal seemed admirable, if perhaps unreachable.

It doesn’t look quite so unattainable anymore.

Roughly three months after the coalition announced that goal, we are seeing encouraging signs of early progress. Officials with the group, called Housing First Charlotte-Mecklenburg, announced Wednesday that the number of chronically homeless people in the county has fallen to 516, down from the 807 who were counted in 2010.

Not only that, but officials said they have found housing for 37 chronically homeless individuals since January, when they conducted a census-like three-day effort to find every such person in Mecklenburg County.

Dale Mullennix, executive director of the Urban Ministry Center and project manager for the initiative, credited the effectiveness of the community’s tactics with the decline over the past few years, as well as the success in finding new homes for the 37 people this year.

The group’s approach calls for supplying clients not only with housing, but also with “wrap-around” social services support to help keep that roof over their head long-term.

The coalition has more housing units in the pipeline. Three-year-old Moore Place, the 85-unit apartment complex serving the chronically homeless, is adding 35 units. Other organizations are helping, including the Veterans Administration and the HIV/AIDS service group Carolinas Care Partnership.

Mullennix told the editorial board the initiative needs about 250 more housing units. Some will be supplied by scattered-site apartment complexes. Much of the need will be met by the 100-unit facility the coalition in January announced that it will build as the linchpin of the drive to wipe out chronic homelessness.

Getting the project built won’t be easy. Besides the difficulty of raising the $6 million the coalition has said it needs, there’s the not-in-my-backyard tensions such a project will attract from surrounding neighborhoods.

“Wherever we build it, we’re going to get opposition,” Mullennix said. “We understand that. There’s nothing you can say that makes a neighborhood feel good about it.”

But as a community, we can’t afford not to get this done. Studies have suggested that, when you consider the emergency room bills, jail expenses and other social costs the chronically homeless run up on the streets, we could save $10 million a year by moving them into safe housing.

Organizers peg the full cost of the drive to end chronic homelessness at $11 million. It’s a challenge our community can and must meet.

“There are two numbers that matter to us,” Mullennix said. There’s “516, where we started (the effort). And zero, at the end.”

The coalition’s promising start suggests it can be done.