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Charlotte came last among major cities in a 2014 report measuring economic mobility. That served as a rallying cry for Charlotte leaders to try to figure out how to improve opportunities for the city’s poorest residents. We look at where Charlotte is eight years later.

Solving homelessness in Charlotte won’t be quick — or cheap

Uptown residents say more people have been sleeping in Fourth Ward Park in the last two years.
Steve Harrison
Uptown residents say more people have been sleeping in Fourth Ward Park in the last two years.

This story first appeared as part of WFAE's EQUALibrium newsletter, exploring race and equity in the Charlotte region. Get the latest news and analysis in your inbox first by signing up here.

Over the past few years, the population of homeless people has grown — and become more visible — in Charlotte, and helping to solve the problem won’t be quick, simple or cheap.

That was the message from two of the region’s major nonprofits last Thursday. Speaking at Charlotte Center City Partners’ quarterly board meeting, the leaders of shelter provider Roof Above and Charlotte’s United Way said taking action will be costly. But they said the costs of action should be weighed against the cost of doing nothing.

On any given day, about 3,000 people are estimated to be homeless in Mecklenburg County, living in cars, shelters or whatever makeshift places they can find. Of those, Clark said roughly 450 might be “unsheltered,” living on the streets or in tent encampments. Most of them are clustered in and around uptown.

Since the pandemic, there have been more complaints from people in uptown about public urination, defecation, drinking and drug use. Liz Clasen-Kelly, CEO of Roof Above, said the closure and demolition of uptown’s main library likely contributed.

“A lot of our unsheltered neighbors did go there during the day,” she said.

And Clasen-Kelly also said some of the emergency beds Roof Above and other providers were able to keep open thanks to pandemic-era funds are slowly dwindling.

“So as we deal with the realities of unsheltered homelessness, which is the most visible homelessness, it's important to recognize we've seen a decrease in emergency shelter in our community and when we had different funding sources, we were able to respond and provide more emergency shelter,” she said.

To deal with the problem, a group of local leaders from the city, county and nonprofits convened this year to figure out what strategies to recommend. One of their conclusions was that the system to deliver services is highly fragmented, between health care providers, nonprofits, city and county agencies, law enforcement and other groups. That can be as simple as sharing information.

“One of the things we're calling for on the prevention side is a shared database. Right now, all of our service providers don't really have a place where they can share information about clients,” said Laura Yates Clark, president and CEO of the local United Way.

Designing a more connected system with “wraparound” services — think emergency and permanent housing, mental health, substance abuse treatment, medical services and more, all provided together — for all unsheltered homeless people is now a top priority. Clark cautioned that while estimates are preliminary, the total price tag is sure to be hefty.

“As far as the cost of this goes, that's always what everybody wants to know, right?” she said. “We're saying $105 million for five years to do all of this for 450 people.”

The cost breaks down to $45,000 a year per unsheltered homeless person. Clasen-Kelly pointed out that service providers can already spend tens of thousands of dollars on a person in a year through emergency room visits, jail stays and short-term treatment.

Instead of just thinking about the total cost, Clark poses a question: Why not spend a bit more than we already are and maybe achieve some lasting results?

“I think we have to consider both what the cost per person really is and whether it's that much, and also the cost of not doing this,” she said. “The cost to the criminal justice system, the cost to the healthcare system.”

Funds would likely be split between city, county, state, federal and private sources, though there’s not an exact breakdown yet of the costs and how they would be allocated. Clark said they’re still designing the strategy — expect more fundraising pitches and asks for public money in the coming year.

But aside from the big dollar figures thrown around — and the big ambition of helping all 450 or so homeless people living on the streets of Charlotte find a better life — the most persistent note in last week’s presentation was realism. Clasen-Kelly and Clark wanted the local leaders in attendance not to expect any quick fixes or easy answers.

Two-thirds of those living on the streets have a serious mental health issue, substance abuse problems, or both, Clark said. Many have chronic health conditions and have been living outside for years, and the fastest-growing segment of the homeless population is people age 50 and up. Some will need a lifetime of support, because they’re not likely to be able to support themselves.

“These are really complex issues that we're dealing with, and there are reasons why folks are unsheltered that need to be addressed that go beyond having one conversation and getting them into a shelter,” said Clark.

And, in a presentation focused on solutions, she also cautioned not to expect an ultimate and permanent end to homelessness.

“If we could magically solve it for 450 people tomorrow,” she said, “there's going to be 450 the next day.”

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Ely Portillo has worked as a journalist in Charlotte for over a decade. Before joining WFAE, he worked at the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute and the Charlotte Observer.