Finding Home: Winter Weather Leads To Spike In Homeless Shelter Demand
With the colder weather, the need for shelter space to help the homeless is greater this time of year.
The recently merged Men’s Shelter of Charlotte and Urban Ministry Center had to turn a few people away last week, says the organization’s CEO, Liz Clasen-Kelly. She joins WFAE "Morning Edition" host Marshall Terry as part of our series Finding Home to speak about the need for temporary and permanent housing.
Liz Clasen-Kelly: We have over 500 people staying in our shelter system and we will serve more than 1000 people any given day because we've got folks in housing, and then we have folks in our shelter system and in homelessness.
Marshall Terry: And is that more than other times of the year?
Clasen-Kelly: So, we add Room in the Inn, which I know many of your listeners are volunteers with. We appreciate it.
Terry: If you don't mind, can you just give a reminder of what that is?
Clasen-Kelly: Yeah. Room in the Inn is a largely congregation-based program that we've got. We've got a sorority this year. We've got community centers where people open up their doors and take in generally 12 people a night. So, folks come check in with us and then they go out and stay in the community.
So, what happens in that is not only are we able to increase our shelters at very little cost, but there's also people who are housed eating dinner together with people who are homeless.
Terry: That program is an indication in itself that there is not enough shelter space in the city. How much space does there need to be to meet the demand?
Clasen-Kelly: Great question. So right now, like yesterday (Thursday) morning, we had 76 people who came seeking a shelter bed at Men's Shelter of Charlotte, and we had three beds to give. So, we essentially just have whoever leaves the next day, we fill those beds. And so that's how off our demand is, 76 versus three. What we do in the winter is we add mats to the floor to try to get people out of the cold. But that's not really the way that we want to shelter people.
And so, we know that there is more demand for shelter. We can do that by building more shelter. The other way we can do that is by increasing our access to housing. So, if we can improve the flow out of the shelter, then we improve the front door as well. And so, Mecklenburg County has just stepped in to fund some new housing programs with us that are really focused on getting people out of the shelters so we can put people at the front door into beds and not on mats.
Terry: What are those programs?
Clasen-Kelly: There are two programs. One's called Link and one's called MeckHome. One's focused on our population that's working. Most people don't realize this, but about half the folks as they come into the shelter have income and their income is just not sufficient to compete in this housing market in Charlotte.
So, one's focused on folks who are working, and it's a yearlong program to help folks build their savings and kind of independence. And then the other program is for our seniors and disabled. So, we have, you know, an aging population that's homeless, and so helping those folks in housing as they transition into subsidized units.
Terry: With the city's push and focus on increasing affordable housing recently, are you seeing a difference at all?
Clasen-Kelly: I'm really encouraged by the level of conversation in action in our community. The reality is the forces, the economic forces around this, are changing. And the private marketplace has always been the No. 1 provider of affordable housing in this community.
So, every day we have, you know, these affordable units that are disappearing, that are being bought out, that are, you know, rents are increasing. And so, the work that we're doing as a community, while encouraging, I want us to be realistic.
It's not necessarily making progress. We're not losing ground as quickly as we would. And so, the reason we merged is because we know there's a significant hill, but we've got a climb to fight homelessness, and I know that we can do better as a community.
Terry: Well, given the efforts, are you more hopeful that the city can eradicate homelessness?
Clasen-Kelly: Well, the great thing is homelessness has a solution. It's housing. It took us a long time to figure that out, and so I am hopeful that people are listening and concerned in a different way than I've seen it before in this community.
But I also know that the tools that we have aren't working as well as they used to. I mean, I've been in this work for a while now. And, you know, every single time we move someone out of housing at the shelter — and we move someone out, in general, once a day — it takes longer and longer because it's harder and harder to find affordable units.
Terry: And is that what you mean when you say the tools aren't working like they used to?
Clasen-Kelly: Well, the ways that we produce affordable housing largely through tax credits aren't there. You know, in the last 30 to 40 years, our country has really changed its thinking on the role of government and affordable housing. You know, we had significant cuts to public housing in the 1980s.
The irony is in places that are economically thriving, we're seeing homelessness increasing. So, it's in, you know, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, New York — places that are economically doing great. That's where you see rent growth the most extreme.
Charlotte's a long ways from that, but we're on that road, right? So, as we're growing, as we're prospering, rents are increasing, and we see a direct connection to increases in homelessness.
Terry: What would you like to see happen in Charlotte?
Clasen-Kelly: I want to see innovation. I think some of the keys are really focusing on where our greatest housing need is. The reality is we need thousands of units that are renting for $400 a month, and the private marketplace just isn't going to produce that.
And so, we have to figure out how to build different types of housing. We have to figure out how to share housing, how to live in smaller spaces and how to be creative with the tools that we're allowed to have in this community right now.
Terry: What's the Urban Ministry Center need throughout the year to do its work?
Clasen-Kelly: Oh, well, we are grateful for volunteers that come and spend time with us. So, we always have active volunteer opportunities for people to, you know, everything from signing in on the front desk to serving a meal. We have items we need — so this time of year, hats, socks, gloves, scarves, things like that are very popular. But we've got Amazon Wish List, and, of course, it takes money to operate, and so we are grateful for people who financially support us.