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Why Charlotte's 5-Year Plan To End Homelessness May Be Different From Past Efforts

Many homeless people have moved their tents this week to East 13th St., near the Urban Ministry Center.
David Boraks
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WFAE
Homeless residents camped near Roof Above last year. Local leaders hope to develop a comprehensive strategy by this fall to eradicate homelessness within five years.

Last week, Charlotte leaders announced an effort to wipe out homelessness and expand affordable housing within five years. It's not the first time Charlotte has tried this, but some think this has a better chance at succeeding.

Last week's announcement was not a plan, but a renewed acknowledgement of the problem and a commitment to draft a plan and identify funding within six months. It's the latest of many initiatives — like "Out of the Shadows" in 2000, "More than Shelter" in 2006, "Housing First" in 2015, and the county's "Launch Upstream" two years ago.

All had similar goals of ending homelessness. But it hasn't gone away. It's gotten worse.

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Charlotte Center City Partners
Michael Smith, CEO of Charlotte Center City Partners

"Yes, our community does incredible work, yet we still have 3,200 (or) 3,300 people living on the streets or in shelters," said Michael Smith, CEO of Charlotte Center City Partners. "And what if we approach this with a comprehensive systematic approach that looked at the full continuum of need?"

The uptown business group Smith leads is helping manage the project, which is being called the 2025 Charlotte-Mecklenburg Housing & Homelessness Strategy.

Chairing the effort are Bank of America executive Cathy Bessant and Atrium Health CEO Eugene Woods. They said in a statement Thursday: "The same entities, doing the same things, in the same ways, will never produce different results. It is critical that we, as a community, change our approach."

So organizers have tried to make this coalition broad and deep. It includes city and county officials, corporate executives, nonprofit leaders, and at least one person who has been homeless.

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PamelaWideman.com
Pamela Wideman

"We have more players at the table," said Charlotte housing director Pamela Wideman who is a member of the working group. "And so hopefully, more players at the table will allow coordination to occur more regularly and more efficiently. … I think we have a problem that we can manage with all hands on deck."

That homelessness problem is growing, both in Charlotte and nationally. Mecklenburg County estimates there are more than 3,000 homeless people in the county, about a thousand more than two years ago. And more than 500 of those are living on the street.

Nationwide, more than 580,000 people are homeless at any given time. And that number is growing, too, says Nan Roman, president of the Washington-based National Alliance to End Homelessness.

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National Alliance To End Homelessness
Nan Roman, director of the National Alliance to End Homelessness

"I think there has been more attention to homelessness," Roman said. "Housing prices have been going up. It affects more people. I think it makes it clear why people are homeless. … And those people who are living on the street are obviously more visible, as well."

That's why cities like Charlotte are putting new effort into fighting homelessness. New York already spends more than $3 billion a year. In Los Angeles, which has more than 41,000 people in homelessness, Mayor Eric Garcetti last week announced a budget that includes nearly $1 billion for homelessness.

"Ending homelessness is tough, tough work," Garcetti said on NPR. "It's not for the faint of heart. But our investments are building a movement, and building our capacity to improve the lives of our unhoused neighbors."

Garcetti also proposes a separate pilot program that would provide a universal basic income of $1,000 a month to 2,000 people.

Much of the money — in Los Angeles and elsewhere — will come from federal aid, through the American Rescue Plan that passed Congress in March.

"There's a lot of money on the table now from the stimulus bills targeted to homelessness — unprecedented amounts," Roman said. "So there's a lot of opportunity to make a big dent in the problem."

Mecklenburg County is expected to get $215 million and Charlotte $149 million from the American Rescue Plan. County Manager Dena Diorio called that money "significant" and said it could make a big impact.

"It really gives us an opportunity as a community, I think, to do some really transformational things and to really find better temporary shelter so people don't have to live on the street," Diorio said. "And really help us grow more affordable housing. But we'll really have a lot more resources to work with."

All that new money and the number of organizations working on the same problem are why efforts like Charlotte-Mecklenburg's five-year strategic plan are essential, Roman said.

"We need to use every dollar that we have very strategically," she said. "And these plans really focus on outcomes, focus on the use of data to figure out what works the best. And they seem to have good results if they're followed through."

Follow-through is the key. Diorio said they'll focus on that as they design the new plan.

"It'll be very specific about roles and responsibilities," she said. "It'll outline what the funding requirements will be, and where we'll access those funding streams. Looking at unified policy across organizations, so we can be aligned in sort of how we do the work instead of doing the work in silos."

Although there are no specifics yet, Diorio expects the five-year plan to have several key ingredients in what she calls the "continuum" of homelessness services: more prevention; better support services, such as mental health and substance abuse counseling; and better access to permanent housing.

While the federal money isn't permanent, it could go toward one-time projects that build long-term housing capacity, Roman said. She said there are a lot of hotels and other vacant properties available at low prices right now, which could be converted to shelters or housing.

Nationwide, she thinks that could create 30,000 units of permanent, affordable housing and house at least 150,000 people.

"It's not going to solve everything, but it could make a big dent," Roman said. "And we need that because moving forward I think it's going to be difficult for lower-income and minority people to attach to the job market. There could be another wave of homelessness as a result of this (pandemic)."

The broad goal of this Charlotte-Mecklenburg five-year plan is not just to meet current needs, but also to create a system that addresses future problems, said Smith, of Charlotte Center City Partners.

"We want homelessness to be rare, brief and nonrecurring in our community," he said.

Officials say they hope to have a comprehensive plan and funding by October.

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2025 Charlotte-Mecklenburg Housing & Homelessness Strategy

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