Archives » News

On The Way Home

ew Salvation Army facility seen as a relief for increased demand for transitional housing

by

comment
Felicia Weeks had been struggling with drug and alcohol addiction for years, and it was slowly killing her. One night she found herself in a strange house " driven by her compulsion for a fix " when feelings of despair and hopelessness overwhelmed her. "I was at the point where I thought I was going to die," she said. "My desire to use was stronger than my desire to live."

It was this desperate realization that forced Weeks to make some fundamental life changes. It was rough going at first. She bounced in and out of various detox centers, struggling to kick her addictions. Eventually she got clean through a recovery program at the Women's Salvation Army. But now what? She had no money, no job and no home. "I didn't know where to go or who to turn to."

Weeks ended up at the YWCA on Park Road, and was introduced to Kirsten Sikkelee, the director of the Women in Transition Program. "I shared with Kirsten some of the things I was going through," Weeks said. "When she told me they had a place for me, I just burst into tears."

There are hundreds of men, women and children who are currently in similar, and oftentimes worse, situations than Weeks was in, yet they have nowhere to turn. However, a coalition of agencies and organizations known as the Homeless Services Network is working to remedy that. Together, this network helps deliver services including health care, counseling, and perhaps the most important step to self-sufficiency -- transitional housing -- to persons who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. Although the network started in 1993, it didn't really gain momentum until 1996 when it received a HUD grant. It has continued to grow and serve as an effective advocate for those who are in need.

"I think Charlotte is finally starting to pay attention to the problem of homelessness," said Sikkelee. "More groups have taken up the cause, but if you look at what's out there, at what's renting for $400 or $500 a month, it's scary. And some people can't even afford that. It's very rare for a woman to be able to go straight from a shelter or treatment center and into their own housing and not hit a wall."

The YWCA's Women in Transition program was launched in 1996, and is just one of over a dozen programs that make up the Homeless Services Network. Initially the YWCA program had no support staff, but thanks to the collaborating efforts of the Network, Sikkelee now has two full-time case managers who oversee the women who reside at the YWCA, which usually averages about 55. The majority of these women are referred by other organizations like the Salvation Army and The Shelter for Battered Women. Residents can stay for up to two years, during which time they have access to various health, counseling and job-training services. The YWCA continues to be one of the primary sources of transitional housing for single women in Charlotte.

"We served 111 women last year," Sikkelee said. "Of those who stayed with us at least four months, we had an 88 percent success rate in helping them get into permanent housing. Better yet, 100 percent of those still have housing today."

Weeks entered the program about a year ago, and has since turned her life around. "Being in recovery, I found out some things about myself, including that I was very co-dependent," she said. "When you don't use for awhile, you start to have moments of clarity. I wanted to do all the things I had set out to do before the drugs and alcohol took over my life. I wanted to find a job, go back to school, and get re-certified as a nursing assistant. And I've managed to do all three. I've even managed to buy a car."

Weeks is currently finishing her last semester of school, where she is studying medical administrative office procedures, and she hopes to get her own place within the next few months. "This program has taught me to love myself for who I am, even with my defects."

While Sikkelee says she's both encouraged and inspired by the difference the Women in Transition program makes in people's lives, she says there is still much to do. "I believe Charlotte is on the verge of getting better. There seems to be a community awareness that wasn't there before, but we still need more safe, decent and affordable transitional housing."

One development that bodes well for moving things in that direction is the Salvation Army's new Transitional Residence Program. Through the help of a 1999 "Capital Campaign," which raised funds to improve advocacy programs with the most urgent needs, The Salvation Army was able to purchase the Ramada Inn on Clanton Road and convert it into a 105-room transitional housing unit.

When it opens sometime in mid-April, the program will serve approximately 200 people, including intact families, single women with children and single women and men. In addition to housing, the program will also provide a computer lab and a library/education room for families, as well as a playground and a pool. The program is a 24-month transitional housing program, and is designed to serve people who have a need for supportive services and housing. In other words, like all good transitional housing, it will help those who have been homeless to work their way back into mainstream society.

"In addition to transitional housing, the program will also help homeless families and individuals develop the independent living skills and resources needed to successfully obtain and maintain permanent residential and economic stability," said Shannon Hames, The Salvation Army's development director.

Considering that other housing agencies are already stretched to their limit, most of those involved with the homeless are saying this new addition will make a big difference.

"We're always full," said Karen Montaperto, executive director of Charlotte Emergency Housing, a combination of emergency and transitional housing that can serve up to 14 families. "We often have to turn away referrals from social workers. We just don't have space. That's why this new Salvation Army facility is really nice."

Like most of Charlotte's emergency and transitional housing programs, Charlotte Emergency Housing has both its limitations and requirements. It's not a long-term facility -- the average stay is 90 days -- and it caters primarily to homeless families and single mothers -- about two thirds of the residents are children. Residency requirements include an obligation that at least one of the adults needs to be working or employable, and that they must be at least six months clean if there is a history of substance abuse.

"As soon as they enter the house they are assigned a social worker," said Montaperto. "It's kind of like, 'Welcome, we're glad you're with us, now let's figure out how to get you out of here.' We have lots of services that come on-site from other agencies in the Homeless Services Network, including nurses, personal counselors, and substance abuse counselors. It's all designed to help them build a plan towards self-sufficiency."

Similarly, while the YWCA works toward empowering their residents and making them more independent, they are not able to serve everyone, and certain requirements and limitations exist. Obviously, only females can reside at the YWCA, and they must be at least 18 -- there are no children allowed.

Residents must also have a reliable source of income, at least $500 a month. Other eligibility criteria are measured through assessment, including whether an individual has the motivation and ability to make life changes, and can function in an independent living condition. While there are differences as far as who the different agencies can serve, there are a few constants in the clientele.

"One common denominator is that their housing has been very unstable," said Sikkelee. "Beyond that, our residents range in age from 18 to 80, the majority are in their 40s and 50s, and most simply can't afford housing. About 60 percent are dealing with domestic violence issues, about 50 percent have had a mental health diagnosis ranging from depression to schizophrenia, and about 40 percent are in recovery from substance or alcohol abuse."

"There are so many different reasons why people become homeless -- domestic violence, mental health issues, or simply not having a job that pays enough to survive," said Montaperto. "But the thing that is the same for everyone is that they don't have a support system they can fall back on. If most of us run into a problem, we have family or friends to turn to, or savings we can rely on. That's why it is so important for us to be able to help these folks build up a support system and figure out where their safety net is lacking. It's so much better if we can prevent this problem before it happens." *

Contact Sam Boykin at (704) 944-3623 or sam.boykin@cln.com.

Add a comment