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Helping Empower Local People looks ahead

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When state officials suspended the license of Charlotte Manor, a decrepit adult care facility north of Uptown, members of a local community action organization cheered. The volunteers had been following the facility for months and had recently begun lobbying to get residents moved out.

Even if they weren't the primary motivator -- it turns out Charlotte Manor had been under investigation for some time before the shutdown earlier this month -- they took comfort in knowing that their scrutiny had helped speed up the process.

"We are overjoyed that the residents have been relocated, and we feel this building should be demolished," Barbara Blakeney, a volunteer with Helping Empower Local People, or HELP, since 1998, told a gathering of more than 900 organization members last week.

The closing of Charlotte Manor was part of a goal -- cleaning up sub-par nursing homes -- that HELP has been working on since at least 2006. The issue is part of a slate of concerns the community organizing group and its more than 50 congregations and organizations have agreed to focus on: creating job opportunities for youth, improving nursing home care, and expanding resources for HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment.

On Oct. 16, more than 900 HELP volunteers met at Mayfield Memorial Baptist Church to hear updates on issues and get commitments to help from political candidates: gubernatorial candidate Bev Perdue, U.S. Rep. Mel Watt and his opponent, Ty Cobb Jr., the lone Republican; 8th District congressional candidate Larry Kissell; and 9th District candidate Harry Taylor. Taylor and Kissell's respective opponents, incumbents U.S. Reps. Sue Myrick and Robin Hayes had been invited, as was Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory.

HELP member Barbara Blakeney told the gathering that several volunteers visited Charlotte Manor and were horrified by what they saw: an overwhelming number of flies, rotting linens, dirty floors and overpowering smells. "When we left, we felt devastated and in despair. No one should live in these conditions. No one," Blakeney told the crowd at the north Charlotte church. "Would you want to live in such a place? Would you want your loved ones to live in such a place? These residents were discarded and placed there because they were unable to help themselves."

Mayfield Memorial was where HELP had one of its earliest gatherings in 1993, the year the group started, said Chris Bishop, an organizer. HELP is an affiliate of the Industrial Areas Foundation, which community organizer Saul Alinsky started in 1940.

HELP differs markedly from ACORN, the community organizing group most recently in the news for allegedly registering nonexistent voters. Multiracial and multigenerational, HELP is organized around faith congregations and community groups, not individuals, and it focuses solely on local issues.

HELP's church-and-community-based structure is often liberal but is strictly nonpartisan. "There is a perception that organizing is a bunch of liberals who want to push a far-left agenda, and that is not the case with what we try to do with HELP," Bishop said last month. "If anything, we are trying to attract the center."

In 2001, HELP lobbied unsuccessfully for a $9 minimum hourly wage for city workers. But it seeks relationships with Republicans and Democrats; Bishop speaks highly of Republican City Councilman John Lassiter's work on increasing job opportunities for youth. And few people, liberal or conservative, would argue against the need for quality nursing-home care.

The Mayor's Youth Employment Program continues to be in HELP's cross hairs. Just a few years ago, the program provided 41 jobs; this summer, it was responsible for 179 jobs. The idea is to offer opportunity "so we can create a new generation of young adults who are learning how to live in this world and make a difference," said the Rev. Nancy Ellett Allison of the Holy Covenant United Church of Christ.

The City Council's Economic Development and Planning Committee, of which Lassiter is chairman, recently voted to recommend a $200,000 increase funding for the jobs program for fiscal year 2009. "Even in this economy, I think [the council] is trying to be visionary, be pragmatic," Bishop said.

Lassiter said the funding increase will allow the city to double the number of youth employed through the program, which will keep teens off the streets and help them learn job skills and responsibility. "The payback to the community is significant," he said.

In recent years, the Charlotte region has seen multiple examples of abysmal neglect at nursing homes. HELP is trying to change that: A year-and-a-half ago, only six volunteers were charged with visiting area nursing homes through the Centralina Council of Government's ombudsman's program. Now HELP has 40 volunteers sanctioned to visit homes.

Bishop said the organization would evaluate what to take away from its campaign to shut down Charlotte Manor. "We want to take a look at other nursing homes and see what are the other quote-unquote Charlotte Manors in Mecklenburg County that we want to go after," Bishop said. "I'm convinced if we hadn't done that, the mess at Charlotte Manor would still be going on."

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