The longtime executive director of Charlotte’s Urban Ministry Center retires on Friday. Dale Mullennix has held the position since he helped start the homeless services agency 25 years ago.
The center has grown over the years and is known for programs including the Moore Place Apartments to provide transitional housing and Room In The Inn, which offers winter shelter through local houses of worship.
In a recent conversation with WFAE’s Mark Rumsey, Mullennix said that when a coalition of Uptown congregations and businesses formed Urban Ministry in 1994, it stemmed what he calls “a certain degree of conflict.”
Dale Mullennix: There was some tension around the fact that the soup kitchen, which is here now, was in the basement of St. Peter's Episcopal Church at 7th and Tryon. Business leaders were wanting to develop more of North Tryon for business and had some concern about whether that was possible with that soup kitchen being there with men and women who were homeless lined up every day on the sidewalk. So, really it was out of that tension that new ideas emerged and they just kept bringing people to the table, kept bringing new ideas to the table, and finally did what I said. They found common ground by seeking higher ground. That is they each move beyond their own self-interest to what's in the interest of the entire community.
Mark Rumsey: And what would you say has been the hallmark of Urban Ministries approach to helping homeless people in Charlotte?
Mullennix: Well, there are a couple of things that stand out to me over the years. One is the fact that we were the first organization in Charlotte to try the Housing First model for helping people who experienced homelessness to find housing. The traditional model had been that we ask people to solve their problems while they were still on the street — whether it was a health issue, an addiction issue or economic problems — and then you would qualify for housing. The Housing First approach says we're going to put you in housing and then within the stability of a home, we think you have the best opportunity to solve your problems.
The fact that we tried that method when nobody else had tried it here in Charlotte was really important because we now have documented the success of that approach. I'm happy to say it's now the national model from HUD. From the nationalized [effort to end] homelessness across the country, people are recognizing housing as a fundamental right. It's not a reward for any kind of success people have on the street.
Rumsey: The other significant legacy that Mullennix sees from Urban Ministries approach is changing the conversation in the community about homelessness.
Mullennix: When we started, I think most people saw it as this gigantic unsolvable problem. Now, the conversations we have with everybody is how do we end it? You know, how do we mobilize our resources to increase our impact to make a difference — to solve the problem. And that was not the conversation when we started.
I can't remember how many homeless people there were in Charlotte in 1994. But certainly, our mobilization of resources, our commitment to actually ending homelessness rather than just managing homelessness, is light years ahead of where we were in 1994.
There are always going to be economic factors that will impact someone's likelihood of becoming homeless. So when we go to a recession and work is harder to come by, there will be some people who will become homeless who might not have in another era. But certainly for those who are dealing with health issues primarily and that's the primary cause of their homelessness, there's no reason we can't solve that.
Rumsey: Urban Ministry Center and another longtime homeless services entity, The Men's Shelter of Charlotte, just completed a merger that was announced earlier this year. What's the significance of that?
Mullennix: What we all agreed on was the number one factor for us was we wanted to increase our impact on the community. We wanted to raise our voice. We wanted to make a difference. We can deliver amazing services to people but we're not actually going to be more efficient at serving lunch or, you know, providing opportunities to get a shower do your laundry. That's not what this is about.
It really is about how do we become a bigger player in the community to shape public policy, to change the economic and housing systems that impact people who are homeless? That's really what we want to do. We want have a bigger voice. We want to have a larger seat at the table and that really is what drove this merger.
Rumsey: Mullennix says when he was first approached about leading the New Urban Ministry Center he thought it sounded like a sure fire burnout job. Two-and-a-half decades later, Mullennix reflects on what's kept him there for this long.
Mullennix: I have this rare history and opportunity to be a bridge between two very different parts of our community and I think learning how to be that bridge, that connector, has been probably one of the most motivating and satisfying parts of my work.
Rumsey: And that challenge is a significant part of what has kept you here?
Mullennix: Absolutely. I really do enjoy connecting with our neighbors who are experiencing homelessness and hearing their stories because they have a point of view that I don't have. And so I learn from them by hearing their stories. But then I have the opportunity and the challenge to figure out how do I communicate those stories in a way to the rest of the community that that makes sense, that challenges people, that engages folks.
Rumsey: You have been described — in fact, I believe in the press release announcing your retirement — as the iconic founder of Urban Ministry Center. I'm wondering what do you think has made you an icon?
Mullennix: I do not think of myself as an icon in any way. You know, all I ever wanted to do was respond to the needs of the people who came through our door.
Again, I think when you find something you love to do and you give yourself over to it — lose yourself in it — good things happen that are beyond me. You know, I've often quoted from the book "The Alchemist" that when you're on the right path, the universe will conspire to help you. And that's what I've experienced here.