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Giving homelessness a name and a face

Julie Rose
Carlo Rattley being interviewed by volunteer Judy Ranson at the Urban Ministry Center. hspace=4

There are about 6,500 homeless men, women and children in Charlotte. Advocates think some 500 of those people are chronically homeless, meaning they've been on the street for at least a year. But that was just a guess. So this week, the Charlotte Housing Authority spent $10,000 on a kind of census to find exactly who is chronically homeless in Charlotte and what it might take to get them off the street permanently. Eight volunteers sit at folding tables in a small room of the Urban Ministry Center. Each has a pen, a digital camera and a stack of questionnaires. One of them introduces herself, "I'm Judy." "My name's Carlo," responds the man across the table from her. "Now I'm going to ask you a few questions about your housing history," says volunteer Judy Ransom. "Where do you mostly sleep?" "Mostly in the streets," replies Carlo Rattley. There are 30 questions on the survey, including some pretty personal stuff most people would probably refuse to answer. "What about abusing drugs and alcohol?" asks Ransom. "I drink a lot," says Rattley, matter-of-factly. "Not everyday, but a lot." "When I do, I do," says Rattley, with emphasis on the last word. Judy Ransom says she's "amazed at how open the people are." At first, she says she wasn't so sure about asking some of the questions: "Do you have AIDS? Have you been to prison? Are you involved in the sex trade?" But people have literally lined up at the Urban Ministry and homeless shelters around town to take the survey. Carlo Rattley came right out with his social security number and medical history because he hoped it might help someone find him a place to live. "Or just a job, help, you know any type of assistance," says Rattley. "Anything is good right now." "Can we promise anyone a home tomorrow out of this? Unfortunately, no," says Kathy Izard. She works for the Urban Ministry Center which is conducting the count in partnership with Charlotte Housing Authority. More than 20 cities have used the survey designed by an advocacy group in New York called Common Ground. Izard says it zeroes in certain risk factors that make a homeless person more vulnerable. "If we identify these individuals as being the most likely to die on the streets, then maybe as a group - as a city - we can say we will prioritize our resources for those who really need them the most," says Izard. For example, most of Charlotte's housing subsidies are distributed on a first-come-first-served basis. If we have a list of homeless people who will most certainly die in the next year if they don't get housing, should we really be divvying up support first-come-first-served? Izard wants to force that conversation with the help of more than 100 volunteers. They've been out searching for homeless people to survey. In some cases they've had to rely on tips from police and other homeless people. That's how they find Levi Smith. It's about 6 a.m. and a couple of volunteers are pounding on the door of an abandoned house in East Charlotte. Levi Smith finally pokes his head out. He says he's been homeless off and on for 10 years. He's angry that the volunteers might attract the police to his hideout. But then he recognizes one of them from the Urban Ministry and quickly opens up for the survey. He even consents to a radio interview. "I listen to NPR all the time," says Smith, listing of his favorite shows. "A Prairie Home Companion, Wait, Wait Don't Tell Me. It's entertaining." And what does he hope will come of the survey he just took? "I hope somebody hears it," says Smith. He's particularly frustrated with how much of the focus in Charlotte seems to be on temporary solutions like homeless shelters. "Shelters are just to keep you coming in like a revolving door," he says. "You come in at 8 o'clock, you go to sleep, you wake up at 5 o'clock you get back in the cold. What? Where am I supposed to go? Who'm I supposed to see? That's why I say, you need constant hedges around these people. What I mean by that is that, once you start it, you need to keep going." He's actually describing what's called "supportive housing," and he's right - there's not much of it in Charlotte. But this summer the Urban Ministry will break ground on $10 million complex called Moore Place. Eighty-five chronically homeless individuals will be able to there live permanently. There will be social workers, job counseling and other resources right there to help people like Levi Smith break from the addiction and illness that keep him on the street. Among other things, the results of this week's survey will help determine which of Charlottes chronically homeless might do well at Moore Place. What the survey will probably also show, is that 85 apartments aren't nearly enough. The Urban Ministry and Charlotte Housing Authority will announce the results of the three-day homeless survey 10 a.m. Friday at Myers Park Presbyterian Church.