Men's Shelter of Charlotte

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A Brief History of Homelessness: Illustrating one of MSC’s Fundamental Beliefs

Last week I introduced a series of blogs that I’ll write over the next several weeks focusing on MSC’s fundamental beliefs.  This post is the first in that series. 

One of MSC’s core beliefs is that homelessness was created by society and can therefore be solved by society. Using history as our guide, please allow me to expand on our rationale for this belief in today’s post.

The history of homelessness is almost as complex as the issue itself. In Helping America’s Homeless, Martha Burt states that housing affordability was, and is, assumed to be the immediate cause of homelessness.[1]  In this brief space, I’d like to propose another historical perspective:  the root cause of homelessness is the lack of an adequate personal support system. 

Our nation’s first major homeless episode occurred during the Great Depression when, conservative estimates show, more than one million people experienced homelessness at any given point in time. Prior to the 1930s people were certainly, at times, in need of a place to stay – just think about the displacement caused by the Civil War. The difference, however, between the late 19th and early 20th centuries can be traced to mobilization resulting from increased industrialization. As our country became less agrarian it also became much more mobile.  As people ventured further from their hometowns, farms, and communities their support systems dwindled. When times became tough and you were near your extended family, church, and community there existed a much greater safety net than when you had ventured across country alone (or only with your nuclear family) in pursuit of uncertain opportunity. Following the stock market collapse in 1929, people throughout the United States faced exceedingly high unemployment (often 25% or worse) and, especially those who had moved out West, a small or nonexistent support system. While the Great Depression illustrates extreme socio-economic woes, it nevertheless points to the importance of a personal safety net.

During the decades between the 1930s and 1980, our country experienced relatively little homelessness. Yes, there were people, almost exclusively men, traveling the country seeking work or opportunity and staying in motels or YMCAs but they were, in fact, keeping a roof over their own heads and not in need of public support. By 1987 homelessness had become so pervasive in the United States that Congress enacted the Stewart McKinney Act, the first full-scale federal funding effort to address this growing problem. So, what fostered the explosion of homelessness when it hadn’t occurred on any significant scale for 50 years? Conventional thought focuses on federal housing policies brought to scale beginning around 1980. Certainly, the demolition of large scale housing projects in the nation’s urban centers displaced large numbers of low income families. I would argue that such policies, particularly when standing alone, wouldn’t result in the massive homeless services system that was created in the 1980’s and ballooned throughout the 1990s and 2000s. The fact that homelessness over the last 30 years has become increasingly problematic in small and rural communities underscores that housing policy targeting our urban centers cannot be the underlying culprit. Something else is at play.

As personal mobility increased throughout the 20th century, the desire or perceived need to remain close to family and community waned. People could still keep in touch through mail and long distance phone calls; and later through pagers, email, or teleconferencing; and now even more immediately through Skype, cell phones, texting, and instant messaging. Many people no longer felt the need to be physically close to relatives and community because they could still easily communicate with friends and loved ones. But, what about during times of personal crisis? It’s just not the same to find support through text messaging when dealing with a major life issue (unemployment, domestic violence, addiction, mental illness). By the time an issue in someone’s life became critical they often were too embarrassed to share and because they were physically separated from people who cared about them it was easier to avoid or hide an issue until too late. During a life crisis and, especially, for people with low incomes who cannot easily book a last minute flight, get in a car and drive, or wire large sums of money, distance fostered an erosion of personal support systems. 

Today, we have an enormous homeless services system across the United States that has replaced the safety net traditionally provided by families, congregations, and communities. Huge sums of money have not solved the problem. So, what’s the solution? We just can’t dismantle our existing shelter and services system because so many lives would be lost. We also cannot just continue the status quo because there are not unlimited resources.

At the Men’s Shelter of Charlotte, we’ve taken our cue from history and identified three areas of focus that we’ve illustrated through the equation:  Income+Housing+Support = An End to Homelessness. In many ways the income and housing pieces of the puzzle are easiest; after all, they’re focused on tangible resources. The true solution to the problem of homelessness lies in what I argue is the root cause – lack of personal support. Once we can re-establish individual support systems, then we can help people break their cycle of homelessness. It’s taken our country over 100 years to erode traditional support systems and more than 30 years to replace those safety nets with our current homeless services system. We won’t be able to move the dial overnight. But, if we learn from our past, we know that focusing on re-inventing systems of support for families and individuals is critical. Only then we will no longer need our de facto housing system and agencies such as the Men’s Shelter of Charlotte can continue to exist as part of a short-term crisis-intervention system for those whose safety net isn’t strong enough by itself. The good news is that since we created this problem in relatively recent years, we can harness what history teaches to understand what it will take to put an end to homelessness… soon.

Next week I’ll discuss MSC’s second fundamental belief: To successfully end their homeless experience, men need support and assistance appropriate to their individual situations; providing too much assistance is wasteful, while too little support fosters failure. Stay tuned!

[1] Burt, Martha, Aron, Laudan Y., Lee, Edgar, and Valente, Jesse. 2001. Helping America’s Homeless: Emergency Shelter or Affordable Housing? Washington, D.C.: The Urban Institute Press.  I’m indebted to the introduction to this book as I framed this essay. 

MSC’s Fundamental Beliefs

Over the next five weeks, I’d like to lay out and briefly discuss the Men’s Shelter of Charlotte’s (MSC) rationales for our fundamental beliefs.  These five statements frame our agency’s decision-making process, but they are more than planning or values statements.  Each statement illustrates a core belief about homelessness and sets the tone for how MSC will end homelessness for the men we serve (our mission).  First, let me introduce MSC’s fundamental beliefs:

The Men’s Shelter of Charlotte believes:

1.  Homelessness was created by society and can therefore be solved by society.

2. To successfully end their homeless experience, men need support and assistance appropriate to their individual situations; providing too much assistance is wasteful, while too little support fosters failure.

3. Shelter is more appropriate than the streets, and most other forms of housing are more appropriate then shelter.

4. Substance addiction recovery is a life-long process and best supported through a harm reduction approach.

5. The solution to ending each man’s homeless experience is through intense focus on MSC’s Equation: Income + Housing + Support = An End to Homelessness.

Tune In to Learn More

My hope is that you will join me each week as I unpack these fundamental beliefs and attempt to connect our beliefs to our daily work and, more importantly, the impact MSC is having on not just serving men experiencing homelessness, but actually helping them end their homeless experience.

So,  next week we’ll start with a brief history lesson.  Homelessness as we know it is a fairly recent creation, brought about by some interesting societal decisions.  That’s all I’ll give you for now, you’ll have to tune in next week for more of the story…

What Does It Really Mean When We Say “Collaborate?”

 Yesterday I had the privilege of sitting down with my colleague and friend Carol Hardison to sign a formal Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the Men’s Shelter of Charlotte and Crisis Assistance Ministry.  Our agencies work together all the time helping people with basic needs like shelter and clothing, connecting them to emergency financial assistance for utilities, and moving them into their new home. 

So if our staffs are already collaborating, why sign an MOU? 

To Carol and me it’s pretty simple; collaborating is a two-way street with the ultimate purpose of helping those our agencies exist to assist.  By writing down our purpose and partnerships plans – what we’re going to do together and why – we’re committing publically to each other.  We’re holding each other up as equal partners.  We’re demonstrating to our staffs, clients, boards, volunteers, and the community that we’re working together, allowing each other to do what we do best, for the benefit of citizens in our community who need our help.  Collaboration means we’re acknowledging our dependence on each other for success for our clients and, therefore, our community.  This partnership is not something we take lightly nor do just to say we’ve done it.  Staff at all levels of our two agencies have been working together to define our collaboration for months.  Signing this MOU is the culmination of lots of discussions, certainly some compromises, and recognizing our own agencies’ strengths and weaknesses and then joining forces to compliment each other. 

So, when the Men’s Shelter of Charlotte says we’re collaborating with Crisis Assistance Ministry, we’re saying that we value their expertise, trust them to reciprocate as partners, and know that by working together we’ll be able to further our mission of ending homelessness for each man.  I’m proud to say publically that Crisis Assistance Ministry and Men’s Shelter of Charlotte are collaborators for the good of our community.


Let’s Get Wonkish for a Moment

I’ve always believed that we shouldn’t expect social issues to be solved by government but that government should play a significant role in helping communities solve their problems.  Homelessness is no exception. Our federal, state, and local governments can, and should, assist us as we end homelessness in our community.  So, allow me to play policy wonk for a minute and offer suggestions for how we can all encourage our government to continue partnering with us to solve the issue of homelessness. At the federal level we need Congress to appropriately fund current initiatives that work – Homeless Assistance Grants through the Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD); Section 8 Housing Choice Vouchers (HUD); Supportive Housing Vouchers, Supportive Services for Veteran Families, and Per Diem grants through the Veterans Administration (VA); Runaway and Homeless Youth Act Programs through the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS); and Housing Opportunities for Persons with AIDS (HUD). I can attest to the value of these federally funded programs.  In 2008, Congress passed the Housing and Economic Recovery Act, thereby establishing a National Housing Trust Fund.  This fund could be a significant tool to ending homelessness, however Congress has yet to authorize funding.  We need Congress to establish a permanent revenue source to make the National Housing Trust Fund a reality. At the state level, the N.C. General Assembly has to completely address the fiasco that our statewide mental health system is in today.  For too long, our state has dabbled with mental health reform, never fully choosing a path and then committing to it for the long run.  We have to expand Medicaid (which, by the way, the federal government will fund) so that thousands of North Carolinians will have access not only to healthcare but also critically needed mental health services.  We’re very fortunate in Charlotte-Mecklenburg County to have our City and County governments committed to ending homelessness.  We need to continue to thank our local government officials and elected leaders, while also not letting them forget that their continued leadership and financial support will be critical to ending homelessness in our community. What can you do?  Well, becoming a policy wonk isn’t necessary.  Letting your federal, state, and local elected officials know that you want them to continue supporting smart fiscal and regulatory policies to end homelessness would help a lot.  It’s easy to contact them, just search Congress, NC General Assembly, and Charlotte-Mecklenburg to quickly find lists and contact information for your representatives. If you want more information about federal policy, the National Alliance to End Homelessness produces an annual policy guide that you can find on their website  There are so many ways to get involved in ending homelessness.  While influencing public policy often seems slow and tedious, it is absolutely necessary and one way you can make a difference.

Ending Homelessness is an Economic Development Issue

Many of you have by now seen last Friday’s Charlotte Observer article highlighting efforts led by Charlotte Center City Partners to address issues related to people experiencing homelessness sleeping on benches along Trade & Tryon Streets. For several years now, I’ve been invited to ongoing discussions lead by Center City Partners to find solutions to street homelessness in Uptown.  I’m grateful for Michael Smith’s leadership because he and his team truly care about those experiencing homelessness.  They also understand that homelessness is more than a social issue.  Yes, homelessness is absolutely about people who experience it – first and foremost.  However, it is also an economic development issue.  As Charlotte continues to emerge as a world class city in every respect – business, culture, entertainment, sports, quality of life – we will also face the issues that large cities must face, including crime, poverty, and homelessness.  Creating a vibrant downtown for people to work, live, and enjoy is critical.  As more people are attracted to Charlotte, we have more opportunity to engage citizens in the issue of homelessness and solicit their support, through their time, talent, and treasure, in positive solutions. Center City Partners has spent considerable time and energy researching how other communities have approached the issue in their downtowns, learning what works and what doesn’t.  Charlotte is fortunate to have a business alliance that so clearly understands that by helping our community address and solve our homeless issues we will create a downtown that we can all be proud of and one that shows the world that a first-class city is also a compassionate city.

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