Finding Home: Addressing The 'Homelessness Continuum' In Charlotte-Mecklenburg
For the last few years, there’s been a lot of momentum in addressing the area’s housing challenges. Affordable housing has become a priority of city leaders but as the region grows, it’s become increasingly harder to find affordable places to live. The city estimates there’s an affordable housing shortfall of 24,000 units.
Mecklenburg County Community Support Services and UNC Charlotte’s Urban Institute play key roles in tracking problems of housing and homelessness. They work together in research that’s key to informing policymakers in addressing economic mobility and homelessness.
Stacy Lowry is the director of Community Support Services. She spoke to WFAE’s Lisa Worf for this week’s installment of the Finding Home series.
Lisa Worf: Over the past year, we've heard a lot of initiatives taking place to kind of grapple with this affordable housing shortage. Is it making a difference at this point?
Stacy Lowry: I think it is. I think because one, we're having this conversation today and you're doing a series on this. I think that we have done a better job of connecting our local data and research so that we can understand what's going on in Charlotte-Mecklenburg. Affordable housing and homelessness is a very complex problem. So what we're trying to do is inform it with research to be able to break it down and make it more digestible.
[Read: State Of Housing Instability & Homelessness Report For Charlotte-Mecklenburg]
Worf: What looks like it's working so far?
Lowry: I think there's a number of things that are working. I think one, we're seeing that permanent supportive housing, or housing for individuals who need Supportive Services, is working very well.
The programs in our community have over a 97 percent housing stability rate, meaning that individuals who have been chronically homeless, who've been on the streets sometimes 20 plus years, can get into housing and maintain that housing. [They can] also increase their outcomes as far as community connectedness, family connectedness, and even looking at increasing their education or even possibly part time employment.
I also think that one thing that's working is writing smarter with the data and about what we're looking at. I think that the data and reports that we are putting out to the community is helping to inform funders as well as policymakers as far as decisions that we can make that would be strategic and smart when we're dealing with such a comprehensive problem.
Worf: Where do you think we have the furthest way to go?
Lowry: I think the place where we have the furthest way to go is to help people to really understand that housing instability and homelessness occurs on a continuum. What we see here in Mecklenburg County is that the majority of the individuals actually lose their housing and end up in the shelter - it's their first time there. And I think that's important to note. To know that someone could be just on the brink and whether it is losing a job, having an unexpected medical bill, or their car breaking down - just that one incident can push them over into homelessness.
If we can understand that continuum, we can look at where we can intervene within the different programs and be able to strengthen it. So, what can we do differently to prevent someone from ever losing that housing in the first place?
Worf: As far as those interventions for that person whose housing is unstable, who's about to go into a shelter, or is in a shelter - what kind of things are people really spending their energy on in those interventions?
Lowry: I think right now the community's doing a very good job when it comes to placing people into housing with supportive services. I think we have some dollars that are in prevention and diversion, but we probably could increase those.
Specifically, how our system operates right now is: Let's say your water is about to be turned off, you have to wait till you have that notice before you can go get assistance. Well, if you know you weren't going to pay your water bill because your car broke down you had to pay for that and you knew you weren't going to be able to do it, why would we not help you before? Why do we have to have people get into a state of a crisis before we actually help them through that?
I think one of the things that's exciting that we're working on right now is that we're actually creating an ecosystem map. And what it's going to do is outline who does what around housing and homelessness in our community, because I get lots of questions about I don't understand what role this agency plays or what role do you play. It's going to provide us comprehensive information about all the key providers - as well as our funders - so that anyone will be able to see the overall landscape and how it works or in some cases, how it doesn't work together.
Worf: The number of cases of evictions has been going up. What's being done to help people who are going through that process?
Lowry: In the last two years, we've actually done an eviction report series. And we actually looked at what the process is for evictions. We mapped it in our community. Where are they taking place? [We also looked at] 30 days of court records to see what was going on in those cases.
Obviously, the number one reason people are getting evicted is because they're not paying their rent. But there's many barriers or factors that are causing that to happen as opposed to just choosing not to do it. What we were able to do as a result of that report series is we inform the community of what was occurring and what has worked other places.
What we find nationally is that if people have legal representation, it makes a huge difference in an eviction proceeding. And what we found here is that the majority of the time, the tenant had no legal representation where the landlord or property manager was represented almost the entire time. We actually partnered with Legal Aid of North Carolina and provided funding to them this year and they've actually heard additional attorneys to represent clients in eviction proceedings. Along with that, they've actually created a tenant fact sheet that the clerk of court hands out to anyone who's there for an eviction.
Worf: So that kind of tells tenants their rights then?
Lowry: Yes, so they have a better understanding of what their rights are, what they're not, and what they can be eligible for. And what we're seeing then is Legal Aid of North Carolina has a lot more cases that are being referred to them than they can actually take in.
Worf: How is that playing out in court then?
Lowry: My understanding from when I've talked with legal aid is that the court system has embraced them - probably more than they anticipated. There are steps or changes or ripple effects in the court system. I mean however small they might be, it's a big change in the landscape of how we were working with them.
Worf: How long do you think it will take to see some improvements in the numbers as far as the number of homeless people, the number of people who can't afford rent?
Lowry: If we're looking at specifically shelter numbers, I would hope that we should be able to see something at least in the next three years. And I think that as we increase our affordable housing stock - whether that's from developing, or looking at additional housing subsidies or rental subsidies, as well as preserving our naturally occurring affordable housing - that we should see some movement.
Worf: At this point what do you see as things that aren't being done?
Lowry: One of the things that I think we really need to consider is as we're building new units, or as we're preserving, or as we're looking at other strategies - we do have a crisis in our shelters. [They are] at capacity the majority of the time, if not every night. So I think what we need to look at is a both/and. [We need to] look at what we're going to do with our strategies to either increase access or development of our units that are affordable, as well as what are we going to do with all those people entering the shelter.
What we did see in the last year was that the number of nights in the shelter increased on average per person. So it was up by six nights. What that tells us then is that people are getting stuck. Meaning that there's no back and out of the shelter. They can't find something that would be affordable for themselves and their family. So I think that one thing that's not being addressed is we're doing a great job of looking forward with addressing affordable housing, but we still have to deal with the individuals that are currently in the shelter or waiting to get into the shelter.