This is the first of a two-part series looking at the Raleigh-Wake County efforts to end homelessness. Read part two here and get the perspective from the people facing homelessness..
The recession continues and the news is rife with stories of struggles from board rooms to homeless shelters. Corporate cutbacks, unemployment extension and insurance losses abound, but how’s the recession impacting those who never had much to start with?
The Department of Housing and Urban Development’s last report to Congress showed the nation’s total homeless numbers were relatively steady from 2007 to 2008, but noted a 9 percent increase in homeless persons with families. Raleigh and Wake County’s picture is a bit different.
Who they are
To start, let’s lose some common misconceptions. According to the current 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness, homeless does not always equal jobless. In fact, most work full- or part-time jobs, but can’t afford a place to stay. At best, a two-bedroom Raleigh apartment rents for $799. Minimum wage is $7.25 per hour, leaving area waitresses, child care workers and clerks without many housing options.
Homeless doesn’t always equal substance abuse and mental illness, either, according to Ken Maness, the Raleigh representative for Raleigh-Wake’s 10-Year Plan to end homelessness. That’s part of it, but more than 80 percent of homeless woman suffered domestic violence and take their kids with them.
Maness also said that foster kids leaving the system without any support find they can’t afford to work and pay rent. Living paycheck to paycheck means vehicle breakdowns, illness and job loss force many into eviction. Criminal records prevent some from finding jobs and our nation’s veterans, badly needing re-entry assistance, often end up homeless.
How many there are
To qualify for federal aid, communities must create a Continuum of Care, a local or regional system for helping people who are homeless, and a 10-year plan to organize agency, community and business efforts to address the problem. Local governments use Point in Time Counts to tally community homeless populations.
Like many working with the population, Jean Williams, executive director of Women’s Shelter of Wake County, acknowledges the method lacks precision and leaves many uncounted, but the method remains a national best practice for the simple reason no better method has been found.
The counts also loosely categorize the population into subgroups labeled chronically homeless, homeless families with kids and unsheltered homeless to help project the resources needed.
Raleigh-Wake’s 2009 count found more than 1,100 are homeless in Raleigh/Wake County every day. From 2005 to 2009, Wake’s total homeless population grew just 4 percent compared to the state’s overall growth of 52 percent.
The number of chronic homeless person declined 54 percent compared to the state’s 25 percent drop. Williams explains the disparity, “Strides have been made with those who are chronically homeless by implementing Housing First vouchers.” The vouchers assist very low-income families, the elderly, and the disabled to afford decent, safe, and sanitary housing in the private market.
Despite HUD’s findings, Wake’s number of homeless families with children dropped 26 percent as the state’s total increased 46 percent. Williams attributes the difference to women’s ingenuity in finding alternate housing, such as being doubling up in housing, sleeping in cars and other alternatives that prevent them from being counted. Homeless Prevention and Raid Re-Housing stimulus funds also played a preventive role. Received in October 2009, the funds can last for up to 18 months per family, but as Williams states, “once it’s gone, it’s gone.”
The term “unsheltered,” refers to “people counted living in the woods, on the streets and on your doorstep,” says Maness. The bad news? Wake’s unsheltered population grew a whopping 221 percent compared to the state’s 39 percent gain.
Why the explosive growth in this category? “Our shelter bed capacity has been relatively static over that time period,” stated Williams. “That has been intentional as we have focused on ending homelessness, which means we want to work toward more affordable housing. However, as a community, we have not really made a dent in that need and have actually lost units—Housing Authority Hope VI projects, low cost apartment complexes sold and replaced with high end condos during the housing boom.”
The 10-year plan
City and county officials adopted to Raleigh-Wake 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness in 2005. Created to coordinate efforts by related agencies and groups that each have a piece of the solution, the plans are designed to change as new data and opportunities arise. Some examples include new data from Housing and Urban Development research showing housing, not supportive services and a focus on the chronically homeless (who are often mentally ill) yield best results along with creating centers that offer 24-7 assistance centralized in a single location. So what’s our progress in these key areas?
Given our high-priced housing market, over 25,000 additional housing units are needed for people earning less than 40% of median income, a total of 23,475 per year (Source: 10-Year Plan). As Williamson stated, we’ve lost ground in that area.
Cornerstone Center, a joint city-county operation on Snow Avenue, was the original destination, but local budget cuts stripped services leaving only services with federal funds. Cornerstone continues its day shelter and soon may offer more.”
Instead of building a single center, an expensive and time-consuming effort, Williamson says efforts are now geared to “taking three existing ‘one stop shops’ and expanding them so each will serve a specific target population of the homeless.”
The plan would steer, single homeless men to Cornerstone, youth (mid-teens to 21) to Haven House and the Women’s Center of Wake County would serve women and families. “Dividing the population has advantages. We often have single mothers with children who have experienced great trauma with histories of domestic violence and encountering a larger number of single males while trying to access services would be re-traumatizing them,” said Williams.
Although the Raleigh-Wake area has failed to create affordable housing, the federal government’s Housing First program supplies vouchers to chronically homeless folks who need housing and services. Should that support decline, this population will grow unless the city and county figure out a way to add low-cost rental units to the market.
New life has been breathed into the effort lately as The Raleigh/Wake Partnership to End and Prevent Homelessness just hired Ruth Peebles, a new part-time Executive Director. Peebles describes the job as helping to” improve coordination and to engage and re-engage community members from all sectors – business, faith communities, service providers and more.”
The Continuum of Care recently re-organized into a nonprofit for so that they could receive tax deductible donations. The plan is being updated to include changes outside the community and changes within. Peebles said, “One of our priorities will be affordable housing specifically for low-income homeless special needs population, such as those suffering from substance abuse and mental health issues.”
Only time will tell if the new emphasis on housing, service centers and prioritizing efforts with the chronically homeless will help, but cutting the budgets that support the efforts seems penny wise and pound foolish. On average a chronically homeless person costs the community $5,500/month (including 23 nights in a shelter, police and emergency transport, medical care and professional crisis assessment) and that doesn’t include the cost of those who seek arrest for a warm spot to sleep.
Raleigh alone is projected grow by 10,000 persons yearly and the city will soon see an additional 300 new households per year, or one third of the growing population, expected to raise their families while working at jobs that pay at the poverty level.