From the Trenches: Charlotte
May 17, 2008 was an amazing day in Charlotte, North Carolina. For the first time in five years, 1,825 nights, Helen did not sleep under the downtown Sixth Street bridge. Instead, she opened the door of her new apartment with the key to her new life.
Helen is over fifty years old, has uncontrolled diabetes, severe neuropathy in both legs, recently diagnosed gallstones and is one of the first participants in the Urban Ministry Center’s “Homeless to Homes,” a permanent, supportive housing program for the chronically homeless. Standing barely five feet tall, Helen’s tiny figure has had a large presence at the Center over many years. As a volunteer here for twelve years, I had watched Helen from afar, not sure how to break through her seemingly steel exterior. She was a member of our Leader Corp. She worked in the shower area and regularly reported for work, usually in an oversized t-shirt and baggy jeans. But with restless, difficult nights, and in chronic pain, invariably, she was surly to those who lined up at her counter for showers. More often, she was slumped over as she attempted make up lost sleep. Moving out of her long-term living situation could result in Helen saving hundreds of dollars that could be used to make rent payments and deposits — an unattainable goal on her small stipend and living situation. Rather, day after day, we watched Helen, and other neighbors like her, go through our soup kitchen lines, employment program and counseling sessions, unable to offer the one thing she truly needed: a home.
The Urban Ministry Center is “home” for many of Charlotte’s 5,000 homeless. On a typical day, volunteers prepare and serve lunch and help counsel an average of 300 of our homeless neighbors. Our prosperous banking city offers no day shelter, so we serve as a community center for all the needy, 365 days a year. When it is 100 degrees and steamy in the summer, or 28 degrees and frigid in the winter, that number swells past 300, with neighbors simply seeking a place to come inside. Tempers flare in the heat, and neighbors grow more reserved in their layered clothes in the winter. Over the years we have added outreach programs to provide meaningful daily activities: an art program, soccer team, community garden and community choir. All these programs have been successful ministries — engaging our homeless neighbors and providing moments of normalcy in the craziness that has become their lives.
Each day, we witness amazing acts of resiliency and hope. Yet, every afternoon at 4:30, our gates close and we watch as dozens like Helen walk slowly towards the overcrowded shelters (on a given night more than 2,000 will compete for the 600 year round beds) or more often, to their camps in the woods and under bridges. The next morning, they are lined up at the gates again, waiting for showers and phones or hoping for good news, any news, in their mail slots. Some look away, hiding evidence of fights in the night, finding it impossible to close both eyes and still protect meager belongings. Most are slumped over as they wait, exhausted from another night (some with decades) of no rest and lives that have become all too predictable. In November, a wise friend asked the obvious question, “You do all this good in the day, and then turn them out to the bad at night?”
All that changed in December of 2007, when John and Pat Moore responded to a powerful editorial written by UMC Assistant Director, Liz Clasen, published in the Charlotte Observer. She wrote, “Whether or not we like it, taxpayers are spending thousands, or perhaps millions, of dollars annually on the medical care, arrests, and shelter for (the chronically homeless), and no one is pleased with the outcome. . . . We have the opportunity to be both compassionate and cost-effective in implementing permanent supportive housing. It is time to come together and put a priority on creative housing solutions for the homeless.” The Moores agreed with this sentiment and called a meeting with Liz and Center Director, Dale Mullennix. Then, the Moores did a remarkable thing: they backed up their beliefs with their generosity and offered to underwrite a pilot program to house the chronically homeless. Looking back, this offer was an incredible act of faith. The Moores presented an organization with the opportunity to change drastically the way it helps people. Furthermore, they trusted the Urban Ministry Center to be able to deliver the desired goals. The Moores’ gift was the gift of a lifetime that changed fifteen lives immediately, and we hope eventually, a hundred.
The Moores’ gift was also a gift that changed my life because it meant moving from weekend volunteer and daytime businesswoman to director of this two-year pilot program that will give fifteen people the opportunity for homes. After years of watching Helen, I was suddenly given the chance really to help her. Cities like Salt Lake City, Seattle, Denver and New York provided the blueprint with successful Housing First programs already in place. Our long-range plan is to follow their leads to make Homeless to Homes a supportive housing program with 100 efficiency apartments and wraparound services. That final vision will take a lot more believers like the Moore family, but the pilot will prove in Charlotte what other cities have already seen: the homeless can successfully move from the street to a home. Such a ministry is not only the right thing to do, but it provides a cost effective answer as well.
To launch the pilot we needed two key pieces in addition to funding: an experienced case manager and decent affordable apartments. First, we hired Joann Markley from the county’s mental health support team. She brought ten years of experience working with dually diagnosed, chronically homeless individuals, and a world of patience to the job. Second, we were blessed with Mark Bass, an apartment owner who believes in affordable housing from a Christian perspective and who was willing to give our program and our people a chance. Unlike most of the low income units we saw in town, Mark’s were clean, well maintained and, incredibly, had central heat and air. These units offered our participants the dignified, affordable choice we needed. A local hotel and Family Promise, another homeless ministry, donated furniture. South Charlotte Interest Group, a service group of 65 African American families wanting to give back to their community, provided all the bedding, kitchen and household goods.
Our first month has been full of highs. Two days after move-in, I see Helen at her counter at the Center. She is smiling, wide awake, and neatly dressed in a clean sweater with coordinating necklace. I ask about her first weekend in her new home. She gives me a hug and exclaims, “It rained yesterday and I didn’t get wet! I laid on my bed and just watched it out the window!” Another new tenant, Robert, who moved from sleeping in a “barn” the past seven years, confided, “I took a bubble bath I made with dish washing detergent! I take two baths a day now!” He has in his new living room a reminder of his old life: a small rug that he used as cover when sleeping on cardboard. And then there is William, disabled with multiple health concerns, who is setting up a schedule to volunteer with two nonprofits so he can “give back.”
Now, two more participants have “made our list” and moved in, but the harsh reality tempers our excitement: we have space for only ten more in the pilot program. There are over two hundred ‘candidates’ as I look out onto the Center parking lot from my office window, more if you count phone calls from area agencies trying to refer into the program. Joann and I met today in order to try to pick the final ten participants. Questions abound: Should we take the boy who has been homeless since aging out of foster care three years ago? Or, should we take the mentally ill woman who has been living in the shelter for three years? But to accept these might rule out a spot for the man with epilepsy, who showed up this morning with a bandage over his right eye, the wound caused by hitting a concrete wall during a seizure. So, each day, as we are faced with so many homeless and so few homes, I try to remind myself that we have started a little something where previously there was nothing. I look at the picture from May 17 on my desk. In it, Helen’s smile is electric, and she is surrounded by volunteers who helped her move in. And I remember that whenever it rains, at least now, Helen doesn’t get wet.
In 2010, I pray there will be a picture on my desk of one hundred smiling, dry Helens, Roberts and Williams with places to call home.