CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- On average last year, one homeless man got off the streets and into housing every day, through a little-known program run by the Men’s Shelter of Charlotte.
This year, the program intends to increase the number to 400 men – about eight a week – with the help of a newly created Housing Resource Center at the shelter, staffed largely by volunteers.
Carson Dean, the shelter’s executive director, said the new center’s mission is grounded in common sense: If it costs $7,000 a year to house a man at the shelter, why not instead find out what benefits he qualifies for (veterans, disability, Social Security), and let him use that to help pay rent on an apartment?
The new center will do just that, along with locating apartments in the price range of homeless men, helping them fill out the application and pitching in money on upfront costs.
“If a guy owes a landlord back rent and nobody will rent to him till it’s paid, it’s more economical for us to pay it. That way, we can free up the shelter beds,” Dean said. “I’d rather pay off a $1,000 debt and get them out of the shelter in 30 days than pay the $7,000 for them to stay in the shelter a year. I’m saving $6,000.”
Dean’s goal in 2013 is to increase the number to an average of 500 men housed a year.
It’s a process called Rapid Rehousing, and it’s in keeping with a federal mandate that emergency shelters should be for emergencies only.
There are 5,000 to 6,000 homeless men, women and children in Mecklenburg County, according to Charlotte’s homeless services network. The men’s shelter houses about 600 men a night, including a growing number of veterans.
A sample survey done earlier this year by the shelter showed most of the men had been homeless for about two years. Ten percent had a job that didn’t earn enough to get them into a home, and 34 percent had a disability.
The men’s shelter, the Urban Ministry Center and the Salvation Army Center of Hope for women and children have all crafted programs to help the homeless connect to benefits they are qualified to receive.
In many cases, those benefits are helping to pay the rent on apartments that get them off the streets.
Henry Lee, 42, was among the first of the homeless to seek help through the new Housing Resource Center. Approval of his subsidized apartment is pending, and could come at any time, officials said.
A disability check will help him pay the costs.
Lee said it will be his first apartment ever. And it will enable his 12-year-old daughter Giani to stay with him for the first time.
“My own bathroom,” Lee said, dreaming of the blessings ahead. “No more waiting in line for everything. Everywhere you go when you’re homeless, seems like you’re waiting in line.
“And the quiet. I’m going to just take it all in.”
Lee said he became disabled during a municipal bus accident in his hometown of Brooklyn, N.Y. He came to Charlotte three years ago, hoping for a fresh start.
That never happened, however, and he eventually landed in the shelter, with some short stints living on the streets and several weeks in a tent with the Occupy Charlotte protesters at City Hall.
“I spent some nights sleeping on a bench across from the police precinct,” he said, laughing at the irony.
The idea for the new Housing Resource Center is credited to shelter staff member Stephanie Wheless, who came to realize that the homeless were inexperienced at things like apartment searches and filling out leases.
Volunteers are being recruited and trained by the center to help with such tasks, as well as locating apartments near mass transit.
Meanwhile, the shelter has received about $100,000 in local government money this year to help with rental subsidies, pay deposits and reduce other housing barriers for the homeless.
“Everybody deserves housing, but there were not enough hours in the day for the staff to help the men here,” said Wheless, noting the volunteers are filling that gap.
“You can’t ignore homelessness. It’s not going away by itself, unless we work together to end it.”