Collaborative connects working poor to housing

Todd Cohen

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — While demand among working-poor families for affordable housing in Charlotte exceeds the supply by 17,000 units, research shows, half the city’s 6,000 vacant units are at least 15 years old and could help house those families.

Moving more of those families from homeless shelters into affordable housing and onto their own feet is the mission of a new collaborative nonprofit initiative launched last spring.

Known as WISH, or Workforce Initiative for Supportive Housing, the program is a partnership among Crisis Assistance Ministry, Lutheran Family Services, A Way Home, 10 faith-based congregations and half-a-dozen agencies that refer families staying in homeless shelters.

The partnership functions as a one-stop broker of housing and support services for working families, particularly those with children.

Lutheran Family Services screens families referred from homeless shelters, and Crisis Assistance Ministry then works with owners of vacant housing to find homes for those families.

Each family also receives support from one of two social workers at Lutheran Family Services and from one of a handful of faith-based volunteer teams coordinated by WISH, plus a moderate rental subsidy.

“We have a major problem in our shelters, where a high percentage of our population are people that are working and clean and simply can’t get out,” says Darren Ash, a veteran of the multi-family housing industry who joined WISH in April 2007 as its first executive director.

“Once they’re homeless, they’re stuck,” he says. “Their credit is shot. They can probably afford half the going rent rate in the city.”

But even though families participating in WISH may have poor credit and typically are not paid a living wage, Ash says, landlords see them as “a much better tenant because they have all the support services.”

Having developed strong relationships with landlords as a founder of Apartment Realty Advisers, he says, he saw that WISH could be a “bridge between our working poor families and good-hearted landlords with vacant apartments.”

Since it began delivering services in September, WISH has placed 15 families, including 30 children, in affordable housing, with each family anticipated to stay in that housing for two to five years.

Each year, a committee at Crisis Assistance Ministry reviews each family’s progress.

“If they are following their family-support plan and in the eyes of the social workers are doing everything they’re supposed to be doing, then the social worker will recommend that the family be renewed for the next year,” Ash says. “If they’re not, we’ll pull someone else into the program.”

The Lutheran Family Services social workers provide families with job and life-skills training in areas such as finance, budgeting and living in an apartment complex, and also connect the families with agencies such as those that provide food and health care.

In addition to reviewing their progress, Crisis Assistance Ministry pays the landlords their part of the tenants’ rental stipend and guarantees security and utility.

And “Hope Teams,” formed from a pool of 150 volunteers from participating faith-based congregations, report to the social workers and provide families with a broad range of support.

The volunteer teams, for example, help families furnish their apartments with donated furniture they can select at a warehouse WISH shares with Family Promise, and also serve as babysitters, tutors and advocates for families and their children.

The collaboration among Crisis Assistance Ministry, Lutheran Family Services, faith-based volunteer teams and local landlords is modeled on a similar effort that was developed to serve evacuees from Hurricane Katrina who relocated to Charlotte from the Gulf Coast.

And Lisa Howell, who serves as faith community volunteer coordinator for WISH, played that same role in the effort to serve Katrina evacuees.

At an annual cost of $7,500 per family, WISH already has raised $1 million, including $500,000 from corporations, $300,000 from faith organizations and individuals, and $200,000 from the city of Charlotte.

WISH aims to raise $3.7 million over five years for the first phase of its work, including placing a total of 100 families in affordable housing by spring 2009.

To meet its long-term goal of placing several thousand families in affordable housing, Ash says, WISH first plans to show that its initial efforts are producing results that can be measured by tracking, for example, the performance in school of children in the program compared to those in homeless shelters.

Now, Ash says, WISH also is raising awareness in the community about the gaps between the middle and upper-middle class on one hand, and the working poor on the other.

WISH has teamed up with The Urban Ministry Center, for example, to offer workshops that give WISH volunteers a chance to talk and learn more about the working poor.

“The program has spurred this whole new awareness,” Ash says, “where people are eager to learn more about these families.”

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