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'It was pretty much a no-brainer' | What Mecklenburg County could learn from Delaware program helping homeless neighbors

The clock is ticking before more than 100 people who are living in county-funded motel rooms could be forced out. Here's what another community did that's working.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — As Mecklenburg County seeks solutions to a mounting homelessness problem, WCNC Charlotte spoke with leaders 500 miles away to hear what's working in their community.

The estimated population of the state of Delaware is smaller than the estimated population of Mecklenburg County, according to U.S. Census estimates. 

However, communities in The First State are facing similar issues with homelessness like Mecklenburg County is experiencing. 

"We were really facing an emergency situation," said Carrie Casey, manager of the Community Development and Housing Division in New Castle County, Delaware. 

With an ongoing pandemic forcing social distancing measures at shelters across the region, a full motel voucher program, and winter looming, toward the end of 2020 Casey knew leaders had to do something. 

"The county executive back in the summer had formed committees, looking at what we could do to serve the most vulnerable with the CARES Act money, that Coronavirus Relief Fund money," she said. "So, we thought what would be the most out of the box idea possible to do and that that that was the recommendation by a hotel."

New Castle County leaders eventually approved the roughly $20 million purchase of a Sheraton Hotel by their airport. The plan to turn it into a shelter with wraparound services was supported unanimously. 

"It was probably one of the quickest things that we have done," said Councilman Penrose Hollins, who represents district four in New Castle County. "For us, it was pretty much a no-brainer." 

Things happened quickly because they had to. It was a race to get homeless neighbors into rooms before a winter storm, Casey said. 

The county bought the hotel on Dec. 1 and two weeks later people started moving in, Casey said. The day before snow started to fall, the shelter took in 73 people that had been living outside, she added. 

"I have to almost pinch myself sometimes because it's just so amazing," she said. 

They call it the Hope Center. It's home to 342 residents, from children to seniors, and dogs are welcomed, too. 

It has a mental health and substance abuse clinic on the second floor that's open seven days a week. The hotel's Presidential Suite was turned into a doctor's office.

Partners work at the center 24 hours a day, seven days a week to help tend to residents. Caseworkers are located at the center, working with residents to find jobs and permanent housing, Casey explained. 

"You can put somebody in a nice hotel room, but that doesn't necessarily mean they're going to do okay," she said, emphasizing the need to bring in experts in trained fields to help those living at the shelter. 

It's had its challenges, too. Casey said there's been a heroin overdose at the shelter, there are still questions about operation funding for years to come, and finding enough permanent housing can be difficult. 

"We don't allow people under 18 to be in a room by themselves in case there's a fire, you know, issues sometimes," she said. "And there's a lot of rules, so we really are trying to be like, welcome to the Hope Center -- let's work on your exit."

She admits, for now, they don't give residents a set move-out date. Instead, caseworkers help individuals or families find permanent housing options. 

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"You know, they get comfortable in a hotel, and how can you blame them? But we can't, this can't be at this moment. It's not a permanent thing," Casey added. 

County officials have committed to help fund it in the short-term, appropriating HUD money towards the new shelter and staff applying for other funding options as well, Casey said. 

"We want to diversify our funding," Casey said. 

WCNC Charlotte is always asking "where's the money?" If you need help, reach out to the Defenders team by emailing money@wcnc.com

They're also thinking outside the box. 

"For example, potentially doing conferences and banquets in our hotel room, getting our kitchen up and running, training people that live there," to work banquets as a job, she said.

The hotel does not allow walk-ins. Instead, you have to call or text the state to receive a voucher and can be placed in another shelter or Hope Center. 

They don't know the long-term future of the shelter but they know, for now, it's solving a problem. 

"Our motto has been 'Don't let perfection be the enemy of the good,'" Casey said. 

Back in Mecklenburg County, some commissioners like similar ideas. 

"If we can do something that high quality and help people get back on their feet more quickly -- it just seems so healthy and positive -- that I thought, we should look into that," Commissioner Elaine Powell said. "I think Mecklenburg County is definitely big enough to where we can look into it."

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Commissioner Pat Cotham is also in favor of the county exploring a solution where it buys a hotel. 

"Because of the way the economy is, we know that the hospitality industry is suffering. We might be able to have the opportunity to get a hotel or multiple hotels," Cotham said. "We do have some money leftover from the federal government that we could do something."

Mecklenburg County staff is working on a plan for what happens after Sept. 30, when the current agreement ends with area hotels that are housing more than 140 homeless neighbors. 

Contact Hunter Sáenz at hsaenz@wcnc.com and follow him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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