As a new report reveals an increase in homelessness, a Charlotte nonprofit looks for long-term solutions
Randall Hitt hears stories about homelessness every day. The story about a man named Stephens shows how it’s a systemic problem that can happen to anyone.
Stephens was a barber and a business graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. A brain condition made him lose his balance, and he couldn’t cut hair anymore. Stephens came from a barbering family, hair was his passion, and losing his livelihood sent him to a dark place. He turned to drugs and alcohol, lost his family and friends, and lost his home.
Feeling hopeless, Stephens found himself at what was then called the Men’s Shelter of Charlotte, which connected him to housing that enabled him to finish out his life safely, with dignity.
A report issued Thursday, Oct. 14, by Mecklenburg County and UNC Charlotte’s Urban Institute, found that homelessness in the county increased by 55% last year, from 2,025 people in June 2020 to 3,137 in June 2021. The average length of emergency shelter stays increased by six days, from 103 days in 2019 to 109 in 2020. And emergency shelter capacity increased by 38%, from 1,208 beds in 2020 to 1,673 in 2021.
Hitt, vice president of engagement at Roof Above, is not surprised by any of these findings.
“The good news is we believe that the community has gotten together particularly over the last, I'd say, three to five years to really look at housing and homelessness being not just an issue of the homeless, but what do we do systematically,” said Hitt recently. “It's a systematic failure.” Roof Above is one of Charlotte’s largest organizations working to end homelessness.
Hitt describes the challenge of homelessness not as a collection of isolated cases and individuals, but as an issue rooted in a flawed system. A lack of affordable housing and a need for coordinated support services are major factors in keeping people from maintaining stable housing, he said.
“I don’t think I've ever had anyone that has raised their hand and said, ‘I don't believe there's a housing problem or housing crisis,’ but I think where you'll find a lot of disagreement, and a lot of spirited dialogue is, well, what should be done about it? How should the community respond? What kind of services should we invest in? Because it does come down to resources,” Hitt said.
Stable Housing Depends on Affordability and Support
High prices for real estate, a booming market, and rapid home sales translate into a lack of affordable housing supply and housing that is permanently supported by services. This support includes permanent subsidies, social work, and health care, especially for people who have experienced long-term homelessness.
This is where community coordination comes into play, Hitt said, which has been a major effort of Roof Above, Charlotte, Mecklenburg County, and other local nonprofits. Navigating between multiple organizations with differing processes and regulations is often the hardest part for people experiencing homelessness.
Many people simply lack support systems, Hitt said.
Homelessness is a traumatic event that takes a toll on the body and mind, Hitt said, and the power of housing to transform people is visible on their faces. By being housed, they are safe, warm, and supported, even though they may continue to struggle with employment, substance abuse, or mental health challenges.
Hitt’s passion for the work is obvious. “Housing is such a fundamental piece of any human, I think, and I certainly know what kind of refuge it gives me and my family.”
How People Can Help
Hitt suggests that people ask nonprofits what they need before donating or volunteering. Many people may pursue volunteer work or donations based on their own assumptions, but organizations like Roof Above interact daily with homeless populations and know what’s needed.
He encourages learning more about the deeper issues causing homelessness in Charlotte. Many of the issues surrounding homelessness, like community services and affordable housing, are policy-based and enacted by counties and elected officials, so Hitt said citizens should consider how they vote, attend a public hearing and educate their neighbors and family.
Housing challenges are both a historic and a long-term issue for Charlotte, rooted in segregated housing and policies that locked people out, he said.
Long-Term Solutions in the Works
Although nonprofits are doing great work, they don’t have the resources and infrastructure to solve the issue. “It's kind of like if a community didn't have roads, and proper, appropriate stop signs and signal lights. There might be people driving around with cars and neighborhood groups trying to put up stop signs, but you wouldn't have the infrastructure to make it work,” Hitt said.
Roof Above’s goal is creating long-term change, including working with county and city agencies on service enhancement and purchasing its own properties to offer affordable housing and permanent units.
“The mission, really, it boils down to being very simple, which is uniting the community to end homelessness. You know, one life at a time.”
Caroline Willingham of Durham, North Carolina, is a student in the James L. Knight School of Communication at Queens University of Charlotte, which provides the news service in support of local community news.