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Charlotte homeless shelters to merge

The Uptown Men's Shelter and Emergency Winter Shelter have announced plans to merge after more than 20 years operating separately. County officials, directors of the two shelters and even the homeless men they serve all say the merger makes perfect sense. WFAE's Julie Rose has more: Both of these shelters were formed in the mid-eighties by separate groups of Charlotte residents. The Emergency Winter Shelter was inspired by a particularly cold winter when three homeless men died of exposure. The Uptown Shelter has always had a longer-term goal. It's open year-round and offers things like substance abuse treatment in addition to beds. For years, both groups have talked about merging, but frankly, the system was working okay. And Uptown Shelter Director Carson Dean says there was some resistance. "You know it's hard when nonprofit agencies that have so much community and faith based support and do such a really good job - you get comfortable with that," says Dean. "And change is not easy, so it's really hard to say do we need to do something different that will even be better? But at the end of the day, once all the conversations were had, we all agreed that was the right thing to do." The recession seems to have turned up the heat on those talks. For at least a year both shelters have been operating beyond capacity every single night. They regularly put men on mattresses in hallways and offices. Then came news of major funding cuts from the United Way and Mecklenburg County. Both shelters were looking for ways to be more efficient . . . and merging finally made sense. Dean says big winners in the short-term will be the homeless men who need a place to stay. "If we're full they have to try and get in over there. If they're full they have to try and get in over here," says Dean. "And that's a lot of going back and forth." Believe it or not, the two shelters have coordinated very little. And as they've become increasingly full, the homeless men looking for a place to stay have grown increasingly frustrated. Take Keith Shue. When he first arrived at the Uptown Shelter, he was simply told all 270 beds were already full "I was heartbroke cause it was cold," recalls Shue. "It was sleeting, freezing rain and I thought well I'm gonna have to sleep under the bridge again." With a little persistence, he found out there was one bed left at the Emergency Winter Shelter. But there was a catch: "What people don't understand. . . they're miles apart." And it was still sleeting outside. It took him an hour wrangle a bus ticket so he could get over to the Emergency Winter Shelter. Early the next morning, he was turned back out on the street along with the other 250 or so guys who'd spent the night there. "Basically they come in at night, have a meal, are served very well by our staff and they leave in the morning," says Jim Kelley, president of the Emergency Winter Shelter's board of directors. Now if Keith Shue had gotten a bed at the Uptown Shelter, things would have been different. It has 24 full-time staffers and a budget three-times that of the Emergency Winter Shelter. It's also open year-round and men can stay for months - as long as they're participating in the shelter's substance abuse program and working with a case manager to get off the streets permanently. Kelley says that merging the two shelters means all homeless men will have access to those extra services . . which hasn't been the case in the past: "Not regularly, cause it's been two different organizations," says Kelley. "When it's one (organization), it's more easy to do that." There are details to be worked out. Eventually, Kelley says they'd like to find a way to keep the emergency shelter open year round. So far no layoffs are in the works. The two shelters will be able to save things like laundry and food service. But the merger has larger implications, because it's the first major example of the kind of consolidation local officials like County Commission Chairwoman Jennifer Roberts have been calling for in response to tighter budgets. Roberts - "In a time when resources are dwindling, we need to work better with the resources we have. I'm mean, think about how much you save just on having one board communication go out instead of two. Having one fundraiser - it's the same mission. And in the end, the groups who are funding want to see this is happening too, because they know that their money's being leveraged better." And Roberts hopes other nonprofits in Charlotte are taking note. Over the coming weeks, WFAE will be looking at ways Charlotte-area charities can be more efficient and improve their services. The ideas will come from you as part of a project called "Charlotte: Mission Possible." You can submit your ideas here.