In 1994, the northern edge of Uptown was a different place. Down a ways from the bustle of the four corners at Trade Street, poverty clashed with fewer concrete towers. St. Peter's Episcopal Church ran a soup kitchen in the area, serving lines of indigent people looking for a hot meal, and other faith-based organizations provided social services as well. Businesses eyed the property, prime except for the neighborhood's underserved, desperate homeless population. What could have been a nasty tale of haves and have-nots instead turned into an innovative partnership between the faith community and business interests, and the Urban Ministry Center was born.
Urban Ministry continues to serve a hot meal to almost 500 people a day — but its mission has radically changed. The organization celebrates 20 years this month with an art exhibit and a plan to end homelessness in Charlotte, at least among certain high-risk populations, that could see fruition within the next couple of years.
Back in '94, a coalition of business donors, including NationsBank, Duke Power, Southern Bell, First Union National Bank, United Carolina Bank and Transamerica, agreed to fund the purchase of the old Seaboard station at 945 N. College St. First Presbyterian, First United Methodist, St. Peter's Episcopal and St. Peter's Catholic formed an organization to staff it and provide the services. They recruited Dale Mullennix, pastor of Myers Park Baptist Church, who had been instrumental in getting his own congregation involved in service and mission work. He came on as executive director two months before Urban Ministry officially opened its doors.
Urban Ministry offered food, hot showers, mail, use of laundry facilities and counseling to serve the immediate needs of people on the street. They spent the first few years in operation trying to understand the populations they served.
"We didn't assume we knew everything there is to know," Mullennix says. "I like to say we were a bunch of do-gooders, but we knew we weren't experts on homelessness. We tried to listen to people."
Some people walked in with clear ideas of what help they needed, and Urban Ministry saw clear results in those interactions.
"We were kind of like travel agents; we'd identify options and paths to get people where they were trying to go. But we couldn't tell them what to do or make the journey for them," Mullennix says. So if a laid-off construction worker who had become homeless found a job but needed work boots, Urban Ministry would get the money for boots. These people experiencing temporary homelessness, who just needed a little help getting back on their feet, were the majority of those who came in the door.
A smaller group of others were harder to help. They came not asking for much: food, a shower. They were the chronically homeless: in and out of jail for petty crime, long-term health conditions, not seeking much more than a single night indoors. Urban Ministry provided services, including offering counseling, to this second group, but didn't push. The squeaky wheels got the oil, and the chronically homeless continued to bounce in and out of services.
For years they operated this way, "complacent and content," says Mullennix, "to help people manage, rather than end their homelessness."
Changing the Approach
But in the early 2000s, advocates began shifting the way they approached homelessness, and the Housing First concept began to rise. The idea behind Housing First, a concept that sounds as straightforward as it is, is still a bit counterintuitive for many Americans. For decades, organizations operated from a "housing readiness" perspective, which required people to address problems such as drug addiction or gambling or job instability that may have contributed to their state of homelessness, before they could be placed in a home. Others used the Continuum of Care model, which moves people through levels, from public shelters to temporary housing to permanent housing.
These models jibed with American culture's bootstrap and earn-your-keep ideology, but didn't do much to help people who had been living on the streets for decades. They just didn't seem to be getting any better. Housing First turned all that on its head. You can't get sober, find a job or tackle mental health issues without first having a safe place to live, it said. In many ways, housing prevents new conditions from developing and existing problems from worsening.
Urban Ministry donors started pushing the idea, and a 2007 visit from Denver Moore, a formerly homeless author, clinched it. Moore, who was promoting his book Same Kind of Different As Me, was taking a tour of Urban Ministry facilities. He saw the soup kitchen, the showers, the laundry.
"'Where are the beds?' he wanted to know. 'You can't help people then lock your gates at night,'" Trish Fries, community development director, remembers.
Pricked, Urban Ministry conducted a poll of its 20 hardest-to-house regulars, asking permission to evaluate their personal records. These 20 were among the ranks of the chronic homeless, defined by the federal government as someone who has experienced homelessness for a year or longer, or who has experienced at least four episodes of homelessness in the last three years and has a disability. By contrast, people experiencing temporary or situational homelessness find shelter within 90 days. Chronically homeless people are dealing with a more complex set of issues.
The Urban Ministry investigated the data and found that these people were being arrested most often for quality of life crimes like public urination and trespassing — infractions, yes, but hardly the type of crimes for which we build jails to keep people locked away. Between jail, detox and emergency room services, it was costing the Charlotte community on average about $36,000 annually, compared to the $14,000 a year it would cost to house them and provide oversight. One woman had gone to the ER 88 times in a year before she died.
"Not only was this old way of thinking causing an astronomical financial burden, but people weren't having good outcomes with it," Fries says.
They put together a pilot program of 14 people, who got housing and help with tracking their medication, and began seeing better outcomes. Many reunited with their families; some went back to school. One man struggling with alcoholism shared that he used to drink so much because it was the only way for him to sleep. Now that he had a home, he thought he might not need to drink so much anymore, and enrolled in a 12-step program.
Myths of Street Life
In 2008, Urban Ministry began construction on Moore Place, an 85-unit housing facility on Moretz and Lucina streets, and finished in 2012. Urban Ministry also runs MeckFUSE for Mecklenburg County. The housing program identifies homeless men and women with health issues who cycle in and out of Mecklenburg's jail, street camps and shelters. They subsidize their housing, though if the clients have income, they are responsible for 30 percent of their housing costs.
That's one of the most pervasive myths of homelessness: that people experiencing it don't work. A 2009 report by the National Coalition for the Homeless found that 44 percent of Americans experiencing homelessness actually have jobs. The number would probably be higher if "off the books" work was included.
"So anecdotally, when people say 'Why can't they just get jobs,' it's inaccurate. Many people who come to us are working," Fries says. "The problem is finding temporary or part-time work, as opposed to full-time employment. People are underemployed; they still can't make ends meet."
Another housing project, Room in the Inn, has been operating since 1996. In the winter months, local colleges and congregations pair with Urban Ministry to provide up to 130 warm beds a night for men, women and children. Davidson College and Queens University both take part in this program, a sort of decentralized shelter program that not only increases available beds for homeless people, but forges stronger community ties and greater understanding for issues of homelessness.
That's another pernicious misconception about homelessness: that it can't be solved — that homelessness will always persist in our cities.
"When you invite people to volunteer and interact with their homeless neighbors, they go back to their homes, their jobs and places of worship and spread the word: this is more complex than we've been taught, and yes, there is a solution," Mullennix says. "If people keep spreading that message, change will come."
Overall, about 2,000 people are experiencing homelessness in Charlotte-Mecklenburg any given night, and about 450 of them are chronic homeless. Salvation Army's Center of Hope (the women's shelter) is nearly always full, though Urban Ministry outreach volunteers seek out people living in the woods, sleeping on benches, in storage units and under bridges. They still offer their original services, like the soup kitchen, because these are the places they make initial contact with the people they are looking to help.
"It helps us lay a foundation with people who need to develop trust with us," says Liz Clasen-Kelly, associate executive director. "Especially the chronic homeless, they have a wall up. It's not safe staying outside, and sometimes it's not safe in the shelters, either. It's not only the ones who ask that need the help."
The Urban Ministry will celebrate its 20th anniversary Dec. 10 from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. at the ArtWorks 945 Studio, 945 N. College St. In addition to tours of the space, Urban Ministry will hold a holiday art exhibit featuring work from Charlotte artists who struggle with homelessness, and a performance by the Holiday Singers, a Dickens-style caroling group. All proceeds benefit the artists and the Urban Ministry's mission.