On any night, about 5,000 people in Mecklenburg County lack a permanent place to stay -- or so advocates for the homeless say. That figure has been bandied about for more than five years, even though more people are seeking sanctuary in area homeless shelters.
The need is manifest: The Salvation Army's space for women has been so crowded recently, the agency has been forced to transport women across town to an emergency winter shelter for men. And according to a new plan to combat homelessness, the Uptown Shelter for men has seen an even greater increase in residents - 28 percent between 2003 and 2005, compared to the Salvation Army's increase of 14 percent.
That draft report, "More than Shelter! Charlotte-Mecklenburg's Ten-Year Implementation Plan to End and Prevent Homelessness -- One Person/One Family at a Time," aims to transform the way the community views homelessness.
"Homelessness is becoming a threat to Charlotte's continued economic development," contends Chris Wolf, executive director of A Way Home, the agency behind the report. "A lot of the homeless are working. If we can't house our workforce, it's hard to continue to grow like we've been growing."
Wolf hopes to present the 10-year plan to city council members and county commissioners in November. If passed, Charlotte-Mecklenburg will join more than 200 U.S. communities whose 10-year plans to end homelessness give them better chances of getting certain federal funds to combat homelessness, said Martha Are, state homeless policy specialist. Those funds, she said, have increased for five consecutive years.
The ambitiously titled plans take on a group many people have long considered unreachable: the chronically homeless. Such homeless people make up about 14 percent of Charlotte's homeless population, but use a disproportionate share of resources, according to the plan. Adopting a new way of combating homelessness, advocates believe, communities can get this subpopulation off the street and into homes - a method commonly described as "Housing First."
Traditional models of addressing homelessness rely upon addressing problems -- alcoholism, mental illness, joblessness -- and then finding housing. But the idea behind Housing First programs is that the underlying causes of homeless are more adequately -- and more cheaply -- addressed while people are in permanent housing. Also, emergency shelters often can't provide the long-term support people need to get their lives in order. It may seem counter-intuitive that an apartment is cheaper than a shelter cot, but some studies say it makes financial sense. From the Bush administration down to the local level, Housing First has been deemed the smartest, most efficient method to combat homelessness, and many federal dollars are geared to the approach, Are said.
No doubt the idea requires a philosophical shift, among policymakers as well as citizens. The poor may always be with us, but Wolf contends, "They don't have to be with us on the street. We need to recognize that our economy today and the projected growth in our economy is not always at a level where the jobs that are being created have a living wage associated with them."
According to the 10-year plan, nearly 60 percent of people staying at the Salvation Army Center of Hope and the Uptown Shelter have jobs. At Charlotte Emergency Housing, 76 percent of the residents are employed.
City Councilman Pat Mumford, a Republican and affordable housing advocate, agrees that "a large number" of working families still can't make ends meet. The question, he said, is "Where is the appropriate level of support for that segment of the population that really is diligently trying to be a positive component of our community -- they're working, they're helping their children the best they can, trying to keep them in school?"
Will the plan get much attention and resources? "Homelessness is a hard thing to get your hands around," Wolf said. "I think we're going to continue to build political will."
On Nov. 7, at-large county commission races will determine if the commission continues to be dominated by Democrats. Charlotte voters also will decide whether to approve $10 million in bonds for low- and moderate-income affordable housing. Mumford cited the city's housing bond referendum as an example of "some level of appreciation" for housing and homelessness issues.
City involvement in affordable housing hasn't gotten much good press lately -- consider the boondoggle that was Mecklenburg Mills. The complex on North Davidson Street used millions in taxpayer dollars before its residents were suddenly left homeless when it was condemned last spring.
County Commissioner Jennifer Roberts, who is for up for re-election, said she hopes the Mecklenburg Mills fiasco won't lower public commitment to housing concerns. "I don't think it will have an impact on the bonds because there's just such a need," said Roberts, a Democrat. "I think people just want to see that there will be attention paid to oversight."
Even if the will is there, the Housing First model will require many more cheaply priced homes than Charlotte has. The city's dearth of affordably priced, decent housing was noted in the most recent report to the U.S. Housing and Urban Development. By 2010, according to the report, 17,000 units will be needed.
Wolf hopes public and private dollars can overcome that. His agency, A Way Home, recently tried to buy Sandhurst Apartments, a West Charlotte complex in hopes to renovating them for a Housing First-like program. The units ultimately were sold to a private, for-profit company, but Wolf last week was searching for another complex.
He estimates that buying and renovating 100 apartments would cost $3.5 million. Where would it come from? While Wolf believes private funds are necessary, he thinks Charlotte needs to develop a tax to combat homelessness. "One of the things we need to explore is some sort of dedicated revenue source," he said. "That probably wouldn't be a sales tax. It might be a real estate transfer tax, which has been used in other communities. There are plenty of different dedicated resources, like what you've seen with the arts, light rail or the NASCAR museum. There are plenty of ways to go, we just have to explore what the best one is."