By Whitney Isenhower
A few years ago, Justin Markel hit a rough patch.
Having previously worked in commercial and residential real estate, Markel moved from Colorado to Pineville, in southern Mecklenburg County, for a job. But after working there for six months, the office he was working in closed and he wasn’t eligible for a transfer.
He did some temporary work, but his income dried up and he lost possessions, his apartment being the last to go.
Markel was homeless.
He tried to get into a men’s shelter, but he had to prove he was a Mecklenburg County resident for at least 30 days to do so. He’d never changed his license after moving from Colorado, so he spent the first 30 days after getting it sleeping on the street.
After that, Markel was in and out of shelters for four years.
“When I was homeless, it was such a frustrating time in my life,” he said.
Then Markel heard about Moore Place, a new facility that was opening up.
“As soon as the application process opened up, I jumped right in,” he said.
With prior diagnoses of diabetes and Parkinson’s disease, Markel was qualified to get into Moore Place and was one of the first 10 people to move into the building, in February 2012.
He said that in the year prior to living in Moore Place, he was in the hospital at least 10 times, but, as of late 2014, had only been once during his first few months living there.
That’s a common experience for residents of the apartment complex just North of Uptown Charlotte, near the railroad tracks. An evaluation of the program completed in 2015 found residents of the apartment complex had a dramatic decrease in their use of hospital emergency departments and hospital stays.
The evaluation also found there were 82 percent fewer arrests among residents, and an 89 percent reduction in nights spent in jail – 1,050 fewer incarcerated heads on beds over the course of two years.
Not just one place
The Moore Place building is a project under the Urban Ministries Center’s HousingWorks program, also in Charlotte. The organization takes an approach of providing apartments to homeless individuals before compelling them to get sober, get employed, get an income.
The approach, known as housing first, has had considerable success across the country and at Moore Place, according to Lori Thomas, a social work instructor from UNC-Charlotte who was tapped to evaluate how well the approach is working.
“That’s the exciting thing … people recover,” Thomas said. The housing-first approach is gathering a body of evidence to support it.
Not everyone wants to live in an apartment building like Moore Place, nor are there enough units at the building to fulfill the need.
That’s why UMC also has 90 “scatter site” units dispersed in buildings throughout the city.
Thomas said one of the best programs to compare it to is a Richmond program called Pathways to Housing.
“When I was visiting in Richmond, they were in the process of creating a step-down team,” Thomas said. “A number of folks will need that intensive service for a long time. But when folks want to move on, they can still get services, but not at the same level of intensity, and save intensive services for people who really need it.”
But getting to Moore Place has been an evolution for UMC.
UMC assistant director Liz Clasen-Kelly said the organization began with the basic services of a soup kitchen, showers, laundry and mail, but soon started an emergency-shelter program. The shelter worked with the Young Men’s Christian Association, churches, colleges and schools in the community.[pullquote_left]Want to stay caught up with NC Health News? “Like” us on Facebook and never miss another story![/pullquote_left]Even with these services, she said, they would see some of the same people consistently over the years.
“Once you serve somebody lunch for more than 10 years, you’ve got to ask yourself, ‘What are we really doing?’” Clasen-Kelly said. “We’re meeting this person’s basic food needs. But we’re missing out on something that’s essential, and in terms of being able to connect them with safe, stable housing.”
To start finding people housing, Kathy Izard launched UMC’s Homeless to Homes program. That initiative oversaw a scattered site for 13 chronically homeless men and women. The original plan was to continue just that initiative for two years and launch a larger building. But Izard said they found it so successful, they started plans to create Moore Place much sooner.
“It’s like a cure for cancer you know works, so why would you wait to give it for two years?” she said.
To make it possible, they had to raise $10 million in 2008.
Izard said she believes finding funds during the recession actually made donors better appreciate their mission.
“I think it helped in a way, because the city really understood what it was like to have nothing,” she said.
Wells Fargo, Bank of America, the Knight Foundation, the City of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, the Charlotte Housing Authority, the North Carolina Housing Finance Agency, 34 other foundations, 62 faith houses and 175 individuals contributed.
Like many businesses, Moore Place has investors in the public and private funds it receives. Community organizations support it and UMC, and Clasen-Kelly said these programs couldn’t function without backing and partnerships.
“There’s a lot of community investment, she said. “We’re encouraging investment, but there’s a community payoff as well.”
To find the best tenants for Moore Place, Clasen-Kelly said they did a community survey in 2010, called the vulnerability index, which involved going out and speaking to people about the new building.
“You’re talking to somebody who’s been sleeping outside for a decade, and eating lunch here for 10 years, and you tell them, ‘Hey, we’re building apartments, and I’d like to try and connect you,’” she said. “And they say, ‘Well, but I don’t have any money.’
“You get to say, ‘That’s OK. They’ll work with you once you get housed to try to get some income.’”
But housing first and related approaches do have some critics. It’s not necessarily friendly to families, and shelters are likely still needed.
Yet advocates note having a house is an important step in permanently getting off the street.
Terry Allebaugh is the community-impact coordinator for the North Carolina Coalition to End Homelessness, based in Raleigh, and has worked with housing-first approaches. He said housing helps enable the necessary support for achieving health and stability.
“Housing itself is a baseline health care intervention,” Allebaugh said. “All the things of life that are going to improve the quality of life work so much better from the basis of having your own place.”
Formerly homeless people, like Markel, can also re-enter society more easily if they’ve had their own place with a lease, giving them legal rights, he said.
“For people who’ve lived on the margins for a really long time – who’ve felt marginalized – one thing is you have lots of folks who said that when they were homeless they felt invisible, they felt that no one really saw them,” said Moore Place director Caroline Chambre.
“Once they move in, they have the stability of housing,” she said. “But we’re trying to also help them feel they have a sense of self-esteem, that people see them, that they have value, they have worth.”
It helped Markel. He is now a board member with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Coalition for Housing, a lead member of Helping Homeless to Housing, an advocate with the Charlotte/Mecklenburg Continuum of Care, vice president of the Druid Hills Neighborhood Association and gives talks to schools and other community organizations about what it means to be homeless. He also trained as a peer-support specialist.
“It just goes to show programs like this work,” he said.