Volunteers hit the streets of uptown Charlotte last week to count the number of homeless people in the city. It’s part of an annual, nationwide count. But in Charlotte this year, organizers expanded the count from 24 hours to three days. Their goal is to identify homeless people who need the most help.
Last year’s homeless count found just over 2,000 homeless people in Charlotte. Advocacy groups estimate as many as 450 of those people are “chronically homeless.” These are people who haven’t had a place to live in more than a year or who have had problems keeping housing over several years and have a mental or physical disability. But the number is just that…an estimate. That’s why this year, more than 200 volunteers worked over three days to identify chronically homeless people.
The count happens during one of the coldest months of the year because that’s when homeless people are most likely to seek out a warm place to sleep or a hot meal. Scott Williams came to breakfast Friday morning at the Urban Ministry Center on North College Street. He says he hasn’t had a steady job or a permanent home in eight years. Getting a place to live would make it easier to find work, he says.
"Because I’d be able to take care of myself hygiene-wise, I’d have a safe place to go to, peace of mind, comfort," Williams says.
Volunteers met with people who came to the Urban Ministry Center and other places that offer help for homeless people. They searched the streets in uptown. They went to camps in wooded areas. They also checked out jails and emergency rooms.
Pam Jefsen from Supportive Housing Communities led a group through uptown. She says homeless people gather in the city’s central business district because it’s relatively safe.
"Relative to being in some place where it’s not as well lit and there aren’t security guards. One of the reasons Trade and Tryon is so popular is that Bank of America has security guards right there. People feel safe to go to sleep," she says.
The volunteers wear yellow scarves provided by HousingFirst Charlotte Mecklenburg. HousingFirst is an $11 million initiative announced last month. It’s a collaboration between nonprofit, religious, government, and corporate organizations. The group wants to end chronic homelessness in Charlotte in the next two years.
Dale Mullenix of the Urban Ministry Center says one chronically homeless person costs the public an average of $40,000 per year in medical expenses and court and jail costs. A year of housing with supportive services is about $14,000 per person, per year. He points to national studies that show that while chronically homeless people make up about 10 percent of the homeless population, organizations like his spend half of their money to serve them. Another example, Mullenix says, is a UNC Charlotte analysis that found medical bills for residents of Urban Ministries’ supportive housing facility, Moore Place, dropped from $2.5 million to $700,000 in the year after they moved in.
"Just being in housing, where they have a safe place to sleep, where they have a place to prepare meals, where they have access to a nurse and a psychiatrist, reduced their medical bills by $1.8 million," he says.
The Urban Ministry Center and UNC Charlotte’s Urban Institute are reviewing the data gathered from this year’s homeless count, looking at factors including age, race, and whether people have children or have served in the military. The results will be released in about a month.