I have been a street outreach worker in Charlotte for almost two years, helping the most vulnerable street homeless individuals connect to housing and other resources. Losing a client on the streets is always hard. Losing a client who is on the verge of getting housing is even worse. It makes this week’s death of George Sumter, a client who was killed after getting struck by a car, hard to swallow. George’s story, along with another client, Susan, exemplify that housing is the difference between life and death for those without a place to call home.
George, in his layered, often-soiled clothing, pushing a buggy filled with his possessions, stood in stark contrast to the people living in the wealthy neighborhoods he loved to frequent. Many Charlotteans took a liking to his entertaining stories, his humor, and his kind spirit, and befriended George, offering him money and food. He had a legal guardian, an Assertive Community Treatment Team, and outreach workers looking out for him. He had disability income and Medicaid. With all of those supports in place, George should have been housed. Yet George died, still awaiting housing, after getting struck by a car crossing the street.
Susan Copperstone lived a traumatic life. She had been homeless for several years and was in an abusive relationship with her husband, who lived on the streets with her. Susan suffered from mental illness, chronic health conditions, and an addiction to alcohol. She was in and out of the hospitals, detox, shelters and jail. She was also a mother, a daughter, and had one of the best senses of humor of anyone I’ve ever met. She worked through a long process with Urban Ministry Center to get accepted into a housing program. Unfortunately, Susan passed away on the streets, a week before she was able to move into her new apartment. Her husband passed away shortly after her death, also while living on the streets.
Falling through cracks
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George and Susan, and at least seven others since December 2016, were never able to live out their lives with the basic human necessity of a safe, affordable place to live. They never had a chance to achieve their goals, reconnect with family, focus on their health and well-being, and live out the rest of their lives with dignity. They were never given the opportunity to define themselves not by their experience of homelessness, but by the people they wanted to become and the goals they wanted to achieve.
As a community, we are failing our most marginalized, vulnerable population. While hundreds have been housed through the Housing First Charlotte Mecklenburg initiative, hundreds more are yet to be housed. Hundreds more who fall through the cracks, who you may drive or walk by everyday without noticing. I urge our community to make ending homelessness in Charlotte a higher priority, support agencies who are working to end homelessness, and come together to create more affordable housing. It is quite literally the difference between life and death for hundreds of our neighbors.
Winston is the Outreach and Engagement Team Lead at the Urban Ministry Center.