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Bridging The Gap From Homeless Shelter To 'Home' For Families

Pat Owens

Overcrowded shelters are the norm in Mecklenburg County. The county's homeless population is now more than 6,000. Advocates have long argued the solution is "more affordable housing." But for some, that's not enough: they also need constant support to overcome the challenges that contribute to their homelessness. "Supportive housing" is the term for it, and the city and county want to see more of it. Wednesday WFAE profiled Moore Place - a new apartment complex for chronically homeless single people. Now, we look at what's being done for homeless families. "NOBODY'S LEAVING THE SHELTER" When a mother and her kids have nowhere to go, they turn to the Salvation Army's Center of Hope shelter. There are cots in the chapel and mattresses in the dining hall to handle the overflow. "One of the reasons our homeless numbers stay so high is because we couldn't get people out the back door," says Deronda Metz, who heads the Salvation Army's homeless shelter. "You try to get people in the front door and nobody's moving out and your numbers are going to increase - ours was up to like 400 one time last year." And those 400 people stay an average of six months at the shelter, says Metz. During that time, clients set goals and participate in job training and life skills classes. Some even get jobs, but Metz says the barriers to getting out the backdoor are just too high. Even renting an inexpensive apartment requires proof of steady work and a good rental history. "You could be in a shelter for years trying to save up enough money, pay off these debts," says Metz. "And so the model wasn't right." A DIFFERENT MODEL Subsidized housing was developed to help bridge that gap, but Metz says there's simply not enough in Charlotte and the waiting lists are extensive. And she says many of her clients need more than a cheap apartment - they need ongoing counseling and support to keep from becoming homeless again. It's called "supportive housing" and two such complexes now exist for single homeless people in Charlotte - Moore Place and McCreesh Place. But they don't take families like 36-year-old Pat Owens and daughter, who's 11. They came to the Center of Hope six months ago. Pat Owens "When you get here, you gotta see it as a new beginning, start over," says Owens. Her voice catches and the tears start. "You know I put my child through a lot and it's like - it's been so hard for me ever since '08." That's when Owens says the daycare where she worked went under. "I came from having a three-split condo, car, nice job and I lost it all just like that," says Owens. "I woke up next morning, I lost it all." Family members could only help for so long, she says. At the Center of Hope shelter, Owens took training classes that landed her a sales job at TJ Maxx. But she still doesn't have enough to get out the backdoor of the shelter. Or she didn't until Deronda Metz worked a deal to have the Charlotte Housing Authority set aside 60 apartments in its Hampton Creste complex for families from the shelter. They've been steadily moving in over the last year. Pat Owens is the latest. "It's a blessing," says Owens. "It is a true blessing." She'll pay a third of her income as rent and federal subsidies will pick up the rest. Other apartments at Hampton Creste rent for between $500 and $900. The Salvation Army and Mecklenburg County together spend about $500,000 a year providing on-site support for families from the shelter - including four full-time social workers. Owens and the others can stay up to three years, so long as they participate in the support services, such as life-skills classes and group sessions. CITY AND COUNTY COMMIT TO "SUPPORTIVE HOUSING" In the last year, Metz says all but two families have managed to stay with the program and make progress. City officials have noticed. "I think we are as a community evolving around this whole notion of supportive housing," says Pamela Wideman, housing services manager for the city. Just in the last few weeks, the city and county partnered to issue their first-ever joint request for proposals (RFP) to create more supportive housing options. Wideman says such projects require an array of government subsidies and private donations that can be difficult to assemble. "What we hope is through the RFP process it's a little easier for the developer to navigate," says Wideman. "You see everything available that you could tap into kind of in one RFP." That includes resources set aside from the city's housing trust fund, Charlotte Housing Authority and Mecklenburg County. The Urban Ministry Center hopes for some of those funds to expand its newly-built complex for chronically homeless singles. The developers of McCreesh Place would like to convert an empty nursing home at 333 Hawthorne Lane in the Elizabeth neighborhood into supportive housing for homeless families. Neighbors there are concerned about safety and property values. Community opposition is a common refrain with projects related to homelessness, says McCreesh Place executive director Pamela Jefsen. "I'm hoping that as we are able to build more communities that neighborhoods will be much more open to it," says Jefsen. She points to CMPD data showing that within 1,000 feet around McCreesh Place, incidents of crime for the last year were half that of 333 Hawthorne Lane. As the city and county become more aggressive about creating supportive housing, they're relying on people like Jefsen and Deronda Metz at the Salvation Army to sell the concept. For Metz, the payoff comes when she stands in front of the Center of Hope shelter, watching Pat Owens board a van bound for her new apartment. "You take care, okay? Congratulations, you are awesome," says Metz to Owens. "Thank you," comes the reply.