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Mecklenburg County Shelters, Social Programs Lose Federal Funding

Nine Charlotte human service programs are scrambling to replace more than $500,000 in funding cut last month by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The money was part of FEMA's Emergency Food & Shelter Program and went to the county's five homeless shelters, three emergency food programs and Crisis Assistance Ministry, which offers rent and mortgage help for those facing evictions.  

Randall Hitt of the Men's Shelter of Charlotte said Monday the cuts come as agencies finalize their budgets for the new fiscal year that begins July 1.

"It's also a source of funding that has been around for quite a while and while all of us never want to take for granted any kind of funding, this is certainly a critical hit for us and one that we weren't expecting," Hitt said. 

The Emergency Food & Shelter program began in the late 1980s. Unlike other FEMA funding, it's not tied to a disaster declaration, but is intended to help private and government social service agencies.

FEMA said Mecklenburg County no longer qualifies for the aid because its unemployment and poverty rates are below the program's thresholds. Hitt said it's been that way for a couple of years, and he's not sure why FEMA is enforcing the limits now. 

The program thresholds are currently 6.5 percent unemployment or a poverty rate of 17.3 percent. Mecklenburg County's unemployment rate stands at about 4 percent, while the poverty rate is about 12 percent. 

Hitt acknowledge that joblessness and poverty aren’t up to the county’s standards.

“So while that's great on some avenues," Hitt said, "You know you're still talking about nearly 130,000 people who are in poverty here in our community."

The $527,365 in cuts included:

  • A total of $222,000 from Mecklenburg County’s five shelters - Men’s Shelter of Charlotte, Salvation Army Center of Hope, Safe Alliance Domestic Violence Shelter, The Relatives and With Friends. Altogether, they shelter 15,000 children and adults annually.
  • A combined $75,000 from Loaves and Fishes, Second Harvest Food Bank of Metrolina and the Urban Ministry Center.
  • $230,365 from Crisis Assistance Ministry.

Crisis Assistance Ministry spent nearly $2.6 million in 2016-17 on rent assistance, so these particular federal funds are only about 1 percent of the budget.  But, said spokeswoman Liana Humphrey, "Those are funds that we won't be able to provide to community members in rent assistance in the next fiscal year."
"From the outside it might look as though Mecklenburg County is doing well, with a 12.3 percent poverty rate," Humphrey said. "But based on the hundreds of people that we see every day here in Crisis Assistance Ministry, we know that families are struggling and that those are needed funds to help prevent eviction and prevent homelessness."

Agencies around the state, including these, are losing more than $600,000 in funding, Hitt said. Besides Mecklenburg County, funding was reduced for agencies in Wake, Buncombe and Cumberland counties.

Hitt said the cuts are forcing agencies like his to reevaluate their budgets and seek additional support from other funders.

“I think there's some hard decisions that a lot of agencies are going to have decide. For a lot of us, we are seeking not to cut services. There's a high demand for the services,  with all the agencies that are impacted. So we're going to turn to our community. We're going to look at additional philanthropic resources that we can garner,” Hitt said. “But we're also looking to unite and advocate as a community with our elected officials.”

A spokeswoman for the United Way of Central Carolinas, which manages the grants nationally, was unsure why Mecklenburg County was eliminated from the program this year.  A spokeswoman at the national United Way office said she was not authorized to answer the question. The national program director at FEMA could not immediately be reached. 

David Boraks previously covered climate change and the environment for WFAE. See more at www.wfae.org/climate-news. He also has covered housing and homelessness, energy and the environment, transportation and business.