An unidentified man walks away from a tent encampment near uptown Charlotte. (Photo: QCity Metro)

With more than 3,000 Mecklenburg residents currently homeless, dozens of local organizations — city and county governments included — are working to develop a five-year strategy to address housing insecurity.

While stopping short of a pledge to eliminate homelessness, the consortium has promised to build a “comprehensive, community-wide effort” unlike anything previously done. Officials said they hope the Charlotte plan will become a model for other cities.

The process, still in its early stages, includes at least 70 organizations, said a spokeswoman for Charlotte Center City Partners, which has an organizing role.

An official announcement is expected today.

According to documents shared with QCity Metro, the group will focus on four pillars:

  • keeping families and individuals in the homes they have
  • optimizing the current system of temporary housing and shelters
  • increasing the number of housing units that are permanently affordable
  • and improving the local safety net of social services available to families and individuals who are vulnerable to housing insecurity.
Click document to enlarge

“We think what we have here is a different kind of approach in that it is comprehensive,” said Michael Smith, president and CEO of Center City Partners. “It aspires to be very systematic in its approach and will look to address the full continuum of needs through public and nonprofit and private sectors.

“Homelessness ends up being an outcome,” he added. “But what if we were looking at affordable housing and all the things that push people towards housing instability and put it into one plan?”

Why it matters: According to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Housing & Homelessness Dashboard, an estimated 3,298 people were experiencing homelessness in Mecklenburg County as of March 31.

Seventy-six percent of those homeless in the county were Black, according to the data. That total also included 393 households with children.

Coordinated effort

News of the coordinated effort comes two months after the county removed hundreds of people from a tent encampment near center city. It also comes as the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed shortcomings in local efforts to shelter and service those facing housing insecurity.

Smith said the consortium is rooted in talks that started a year ago.

The 2025 Charlotte-Mecklenburg Housing & Homelessness Strategy, as it is being called, is led by Cathy Bessant, chief operations and technology officer for Bank of America, and Eugene A. Woods, president and CEO of Atrium Health.

In a statement, Bessant called homelessness a “human and community tragedy.”

“We are all impacted by it,” she said. “Our focus will be on developing an approach that addresses the full continuum of need, and on helping to drive meaningful and lasting change.”

The group has set Oct. 1 as the deadline to develop and launch the five-year strategy.

At some point, organizers said, the strategy will be presented to Charlotte City Council and the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners in hopes that both will adopt the plan.

“As we have seen especially throughout the pandemic, Charlotte has a track-record of government, businesses and health systems coming together to address our most pressing health and social issues,” Woods, the Atrium Health leader, said in a statement. “And I am optimistic that we can work collectively to meet this challenge as well.”

‘Inclusivity’ will be vital

During the past year of initial planning, all the work that has gone into organizing the effort has been voluntary, officials said. That includes work done by McKinsey & Company, an international consulting firm that runs an Institute for Black Economic Mobility.

As the five-year plan starts to take shape, McKinsey will provide guidance and fact-based analysis without charge, officials said.

The officials who spoke with QCity Metro said it’s important that the process be “stakeholder-driven and steeped in equity, transparency and inclusivity.”

Asked to define the initiative’s measures of success, Smith, of Center City Partners, said: “The stated finish line is that homelessness is rare, brief and non-recurring in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, and that every person has access to permanent, affordable housing and the resources to sustain it.”

James Lee, who grew up in Charlotte’s Grier Heights community and experienced a decade of housing insecurity and intermittent homelessness, said he has worked with the consortium during its formative phase. Lee said he knows firsthand how important it will be for the group to include all sectors of the community.

“A lot of times you have at the table people who have never experienced any challenge in their life,” he said. “So how can you bring to the table how to fix my life if you’ve never been there, if you’ve only read a book? You’ve got so much, so your thinking is going to be different.”

Lee said his experience with homelesness began shortly after he was divorced in the early 2000s. He described himself, back then, as a “functioning addict” who held a job but was unable to maintain his independence. For 11 months in 2018, he said, he had no home at all.

Lee, a community advocate, now works with local groups seeking to address a variety of social concerns from hunger and homelessness to voter registration. He said he also owns James Lee and Associates LLC, which uses grant funding to address those issues.

Lee said he was “flattered” to be included in the consortium’s early work, and he expressed hope that the Charlotte effort would result in a better system of services for poor people. During the pandemic, he said, the current system “utterly failed in keeping people where they needed to be, in a safe environment for them and their families.”

Smith of Center City Partners said the consortium is committed to including smaller, grass-roots service organizations that work in and around homelessness.

“I would like to ensure that they have a seat at the table when this kind of thinking is going on,” he said. “It’s core to their work, and we’ll try really hard to just continue to add chairs to the table as we discover more community leaders that want to be a part of this process.”

An ages-old problem

Smith said he believes that Charlotte, because its homeless population is relatively small compared to other urban areas, may have an advantage in finding long-term solutions to housing insecurity. He also noted what he described as Charlotte’s history of using public-private partnerships to address big issues.

He said the consortium evolved from a sense of “enlightened self-interest.”

“Our community will be a better place,” he said, “by having more of our neighbors fully meet their potential.”

A cooking fire smolders at a tent encampment near uptown Charlotte. (Photo: QCity Metro)

Smith also acknowledged the limitations of local efforts.

“All you have to do is pick up (the) Old Testament to see how civilization has struggled with this mightily,” he said. “I think when you have societal issues, they are best addressed with a combination of national and global policy, but with very dedicated local action.”

Smith added: “I think this is a chance for our community to differentiate itself. I think there is quite a statement made by the way a community supports those that are experiencing the worst day of their life. And that’s the opportunity that lies before us.”

Founder and publisher of Qcitymetro, Glenn has worked at newspapers including the Los Angeles Times, St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Wall Street Journal and The Charlotte Observer.

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