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Breaking Ground On A New Way To Help Charlotte's Homeless

The Urban Ministry Center broke ground today (yesterday) on what will be the city's first apartment building dedicated to housing people who are chronically homeless. The concept had skeptics - and vocal opponents - when it was first proposed. But now $10 million has been raised for the project and WFAE's Julie Rose reports on how support for it has grown. Every month, Robert Flowers looks forward to something most of us dread: Paying bills. "It's a wonderful feeling," says Flowers. Paying bills means having a place to live, which is something Flowers went without for most of the last decade. Disabilities and alcohol addiction kept him on the street until two and a half years ago when the Urban Ministry Center gave him a free apartment. It was part of a pilot program to prove that the key to ending chronic homelessness is giving people a stable place to live. In that apartment, Flowers was finally able to qualify for disability payments and get his life together. But there were some adjustments, like getting used to sleeping in a bed. "At first I found myself in the living room on the floor a lot," says Flowers. "But I finally made it around to my bed. I have a real nice bedroom. My apartment is very homey." A lot of people doubted the "housing first" approach would work in Charlotte. When the Urban Ministry Center first started asking for support from the city and county to try it out, officials wanted to know why on earth they should spend scarce tax dollars on free housing for someone who's in and out of jail, chronically drunk and has been on the street for years? Wouldn't that just be rewarding their bad behavior? In time, though, the perspective changed, says County Commissioner Dan Murrey: "I think that people have a better understanding of all the elements it takes to provide someone with stability, and that stability really is the key for people to ultimately build themselves out of homelessness," says Murrey. Without the stability of a free apartment, Robert Flowers and the 12 others who've been part of the Urban Ministry's pilot housing project would likely still be taking up space in the city's homeless shelters and jail at a much higher cost to the community than paying rent. Now the pilot program participants are attending classes at CPCC, getting treatment for their disabilities - and some have even found work. Commissioner Murrey says that success won over the skeptics. The city and county committed about $2 million of the $10 million needed for a new apartment building to house the chronically homeless. "The county and city and private enterprises have committed to it in a way that everybody feels like we're all in now," says Murrey. However, the neighborhood where the new apartments will be built has been a bit slower to come around. Druid Hills, north of Uptown, is bordered to the north and south by homeless shelters. Residents say the last thing they need is more homeless people traipsing through, causing trouble and attracting crime. But as plans for the new building have progressed, neighborhood opposition has mellowed to a "wait and see" attitude. Janice Lemay lives a few blocks from the site. "I kind of was skeptical a little bit, but I just looked at the picture, and I think it's gonna be great," said Lemay at the groundbreaking ceremony on Friday. In fact, it'll be better than the junk car lot that used to be here, she says. The new apartments will be called Moore Place. When they open in the spring, 85 of the city's most vulnerable homeless people - most of them with disabilities of some sort - will move into their own studio apartments. They'll have to sign a lease and follow some rules, like any other renter. There will be 24-hour security and caseworkers on site, too. Robert Flowers is living proof the concept can work. But he won't be moving into the new apartments. He's already got one, just a few blocks away. After the groundbreaking ceremony, he heads out on foot. "Going home," he says with a smile. "The air conditioning's on 69 degrees and it's real comfortable." Listen back the WFAE's previous stories about Robert Flowers and Moore Place: Homeless to Home After 8 years of being homeless, Charlotte man has a home on Thanksgiving Homeless housing project advances Donors offer "Moore" to homeless