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Homelessness group finding its way

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By Todd Cohen

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Charlotte Emergency Housing aims to raise $2.5 million to buy 20 homes to house homeless families while they get on their feet.

Emergency Winter Shelter is renovating and plans on Nov. 1 to open a former warehouse on Statesville Avenue to house up to 200 homeless men.

A three-mile walk on Nov. 19 expected to attract 500 people is part of an effort to build community awareness about homelessness and corporate support for development of a 10-year plan to end it.

And a task force of local nonprofits, government agencies and religious congregations is working to help evacuees of Hurricane Katrina get connected to local social services.

Playing a key role in all four efforts is A Way Home, a nonprofit formed in early 2004 to serve as an advocate for the prevention of homelessness.

Chris Wolf, the group’s executive director and only employee, says he has focused on building the relationships A Way Home needs to be an effective voice and catalyst for ending homelessness.

Growing out of the Community Task Force on Homelessness, A Way Home has secured foundation support and fees for contracts to support its $250,000 annual budget.

Under a contract with the city of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, A Way Home is serving as project manager to develop the 10-year plan to end homelessness.

That effort already has looked at “best practices” from plans in other communities, and now is focusing on developing corporate support.

“In communities with strong homeless plans, there’s strong buy-in from the corporate community,” says Wolf, a veteran of the investment-banking industry and former head of the largest Habitat for Humanity affiliate in the western United States.

The local homelessness initiative has secured support from social-services agencies, he says, but not yet from the corporate community.

“They don’t really understand the scope of the problem, or the viability of some of the solutions,” he says.

On any given night in Mecklenburg County, an estimated 5,000 people are homeless, including at least 1,400 children, Wolf says.

Homelessness, or the lack of a home, he says, simply is a symptom of any number of problems such as domestic violence, severe untreated schizophrenia, the loss of a job and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Finding homeless people a place to stay, a strategy known as “housing first,” is critical, Wolf says.

But once formerly homeless people have a place to stay, he says, it is equally critical to identify what led to their homelessness and connect them with the services they need to address the underlying problems.

That approach reflects A Way Home’s role managing Project TASK, the collaborative effort to connect the Charlotte area’s over 3,000 Katrina evacuees to local services.

Katrina, in fact, has shed light on an underlying cause of the very problem A Way Home was created to address, Wolf says.

“What I’m finding out about A Way Home and what Katrina is telling the whole country is that the majority of those dealing with homelessness are those dealing with poverty,” he says. “It’s going to force us to talk about it.”

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