Homeless no more

Nonprofit developer brings people home from the streets.

By Ret Boney

RALEIGH, N.C. [06.02.04] — Finding housing in Raleigh, where costs are among the highest in the North Carolina, can be difficult.

For unemployed homeless people with disabilities, it is virtually impossible.

Serving those hardest-to-house people is the mission of CASA, or Community Alternatives for Supportive Abodes, a Raleigh nonprofit developer and manager of affordable housing for poor people, many with disabilities.

CASA’s tenants, 75 percent of whom previously were homeless, tend to come from the streets, shelters or area psychiatric hospitals, and generally are not equipped financially or otherwise to find housing in the mainstream market.

“We’re a kinder, gentler landlord,” says Debra King, executive director of CASA since 1995. “Sometimes people need a little retooling.”

To live in a CASA apartment, tenants pay 30 percent of their income, which for most is $552 a month in federal disability payments that CASA bolsters with federal subsidies when possible.

In return, tenants receive a safe home and hands-on help from CASA caseworkers in learning how to live on their own, whether by keeping an apartment clean or turning in a rent check on time.

They also have access to a doctor and nurse who provide general medical care, psychiatric evaluations and medications, with nurse visits occurring in the client’s home when needed.

CASA has built or rehabilitated 150 rental units since 1992, including two “transitional facilities” that serve people not yet ready for independent living, with another 84 units in the works, says King.

Overall the group has served about 740 people, she says, and has tapped more than $18 million in local, federal and state funds for its efforts thus far.

“The good news and bad new is that people don’t often move from our units,” says King.

On the positive side, people who have been homeless for several years are staying off the streets and out of hospitals for extended periods, some since CASA first opened its doors.

The downside is that CASA apartments rarely become vacant, a growing problem in the face of rising need to house this population because of the downsizing and imminent closing of Dorothea Dix psychiatric hospital in Raleigh.

“People just aren’t staying in as long as they need to be,” King says of the flow of patients out of Dix.

To meet that growing need, development and rehabilitation of sites continue for CASA, which is building 10 units for working-poor families with disabilities.

To build those units, CASA has teamed up with Pan Lutheran Ministries of Wake County, a nonprofit that serves homeless families, and with the Women’s Center of Wake County, a women’s rights advocacy group.

CASA is also working on a 14-unit development for adults with disabilities, and has applied for funding for another 60-unit development for the elderly, some with disabilities.

CASA recently has taken its work beyond Wake County by helping other communities try to secure available federal dollars that, if not used in state, will go elsewhere, King says.

Last year, she says, North Carolina left $4.5 million on the table.

In June, CASA’s 21st staffer, a landscape supervisor, will join the team to train a crew of CASA residents to maintain the group’s properties, a project called Community Property Alternatives that was made possible by grants from the city for training and the county for equipment.

“Most of us want to do something meaningful each day, like go to work,” says King, who hopes the program will improve residents’ quality of life while teaching them a new set of skills, including how to be a good employee.

If successful, the group may try a similar program for cleaning and painting crews.

“We offer people a chance to live independently,” King says, “to rebuild their lives when their dream is changed.”

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