Bridging the Gap: Addressing Unsheltered Homelessness in Charlotte-Mecklenburg

Mary Ann Priester

Senior Management Analyst
Mecklenburg County Community Support Services

Jessica Lefkowitz

Executive Director
Hearts for the Invisible Charlotte Coalition, Inc.

Point-in-Time Count

The annual HUD Point-in-Time (PIT) count is a comprehensive effort conducted across the United States to gather data on homelessness. It takes place on a single night in January each year and provides a snapshot of homelessness at that particular moment. The key objectives of the PIT count are to estimate the number of people experiencing homelessness and to understand their demographic characteristics and living situations. While it provides valuable data that informs policy decisions, resource allocation, and the development of effective interventions, it is widely acknowledged as an undercount of homelessness in the United States. There are a myriad of reasons why the PIT count does not capture the full extent of homelessness including but not limited to methodological limitations and the transient or hidden nature of homelessness. Conducting an accurate count of individuals experiencing homelessness, especially those who are unsheltered, is challenging. The PIT count relies on a single night snapshot, which may not capture the full range of individuals who experience homelessness intermittently or who may not be in the surveyed locations on that specific night, making it difficult to locate and count them accurately. Some individuals may also intentionally avoid the count due to fear, mistrust, or concerns about their legal status or involvement with authorities. Despite these limitations, the PIT count remains an important tool for assessing homelessness trends and informing policy decisions. Recognizing its limitations, local efforts are made to complement the PIT count with other data sources and methodologies such as the regularly updated One Number, to gain a more comprehensive understanding of homelessness in Charlotte-Mecklenburg.

The PIT count consists of two components: the Sheltered Homeless Census which quantifies the number of individuals who were in an emergency shelter, safe haven, or transitional housing on the night of the PIT and the Unsheltered Homeless Census. A future blog post will unpack the Sheltered Homeless Census.

This blog focuses on the Unsheltered Homeless Census, the state of unsheltered homelessness locally and nationally, strategic outreach, and work underway to address unsheltered homelessness in Charlotte-Mecklenburg.

Unsheltered Homeless Census

One of the critical aspects of the PIT count is estimating the number of individuals experiencing unsheltered homelessness. The Unsheltered Homeless Census aims to capture information on individuals who are experiencing homelessness and living in places not meant for human habitation, such as on the streets, in vehicles, or in encampments. It involves volunteers and outreach teams canvassing the community to locate and engage with unsheltered individuals. They conduct surveys to collect data on various demographic characteristics, including age, gender, veteran status, and length of time experiencing homelessness. The goal is to obtain a comprehensive understanding of the unsheltered homeless population and their specific needs.

The data collected through the Unsheltered Homeless Census is vital for informing policy decisions, allocating resources, and designing effective interventions to address homelessness. It helps identify trends, measure progress, and assess the impact of programs and initiatives aimed at reducing unsheltered homelessness. By understanding the size and characteristics of the population experiencing unsheltered homeless, communities can develop targeted strategies to provide appropriate services and support for this vulnerable group.

Local Count and Data

On January 26, 2023, a dedicated group of 22 police officers and over 130 volunteers comprising 35 teams came together in Mecklenburg County to facilitate and conduct the 2023 Charlotte-Mecklenburg Point-in-Time Count Unsheltered Homeless Census. This was the first time since the 2020 PIT that volunteers conducted surveys due to the pandemic. Also for the first time, volunteers canvassed the entire geographic area of Mecklenburg County, including the six towns, to locate, engage, and survey individuals experiencing unsheltered homelessness. In addition, the Mecklenburg County CoC leveraged Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) data to identify people who may have been unsheltered on the night of the PIT. Staff reached out to all persons identified through HMIS to verify where they slept on PIT night. Through this methodology, 288 persons who were experiencing unsheltered homelessness were identified. Of those who were identified, 28% were age 45-54 and 26% were age 55 or older. Sixty-six percent identified as male; 5% Hispanic/ Latin-x; 64% identified as Black, African American, or African and 28% identified as White. Forty-two percent of people who were unsheltered also reported being chronically homeless which means they report a disability AND a year continuous homelessness or 4 episodes of homelessness in the previous 3 years totaling 12 months. This year is the highest unsheltered count since 2012 and is a 35% increase in unsheltered homeless since the 2020 pre-pandemic count.

Trends in Unsheltered Homelessness

The local increase in unsheltered homelessness is consistent with trends that are being observed nationally.

Unsheltered homelessness has been on the rise in many parts of the United States in recent years. Factors such as housing affordability challenges, income inequality, and limited access to social services contribute to the growing number of individuals living on the streets. Urban areas, particularly major cities with high housing costs, tend to have larger populations of unsheltered individuals. Unsheltered homelessness affects a diverse range of individuals, but veterans, individuals with mental health or substance use issues, LGBTQ+ youth, and families experiencing homelessness are particularly vulnerable. Lack of affordable housing options and limited access to healthcare and supportive services compound the challenges faced by these populations.

Unsheltered homelessness exposes individuals to numerous health and safety risks including exposure to extreme weather conditions and violence. Substance use and mental health disorders are often prevalent among the unsheltered population. Lack of access to clean water, sanitation facilities, and healthcare services further exacerbates health vulnerabilities.

Communities often have inadequate resources to address unsheltered homelessness. Shelter capacities may be insufficient to meet the demand, resulting in individuals being turned away. Additionally, funding for supportive services, affordable housing initiatives, and prevention programs may be limited, limiting efforts to address the root causes of homelessness.

The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the challenges faced by unsheltered individuals. During the height of the pandemic, reduced shelter capacities due to physical distancing requirements, loss of employment opportunities, and increased health risks all intensified the stress on the unsheltered population and strained existing resources.

Addressing the state of unsheltered homelessness requires a multi-faceted approach that combines immediate relief efforts with long-term solutions. Increasing the availability of affordable housing, expanding access to mental health and substance use treatment, strengthening supportive services, and fostering community collaborations are essential steps towards mitigating unsheltered homelessness and ensuring the well-being of individuals experiencing homelessness locally and nationally.

Strategic Street Outreach

Strategic street outreach is an approach used to engage with and provide support to individuals who are unsheltered. It involves targeted efforts by outreach teams to establish connections, build relationships, and offer assistance to individuals in need. Strategic street outreach consists of six key elements:

  • Targeted Approach: Focuses on identifying and engaging individuals or groups of individuals who are unsheltered and may have complex needs. May prioritize areas with high concentrations of people who are unsheltered.
  • Trust and Rapport: To help individuals feel more comfortable seeking assistance and engaging in supportive services, trust and rapport is built with individuals by listening to their stories, understanding their challenges, and demonstrating empathy and respect.
  • Assess Needs and Provide Resources: Conduct assessments to understand the unique needs and circumstances of each individual and connect them with available resources.
  • Case Management and Supportive Services: Provide ongoing case management services to help individuals navigate the system; assist with obtaining identification documents, accessing benefits and entitlements, securing housing, or connecting with other services. Coordinate and advocate for individuals to ensure they receive appropriate and timely assistance.
  • Harm Reduction and Trauma-Informed Care: Embrace a harm reduction and trauma-informed care approach and prioritize meeting individuals “where they are” and offering non-judgmental support while promoting health and safety.
  • Collaboration and Partnerships: Work with various stakeholders, including local government agencies, nonprofits, healthcare providers, and community organizations. to leverage resources, share information, and ensure a coordinated response to address the complex needs of individuals experiencing homelessness.

Strategic street outreach aims to bridge the gap between unsheltered individuals and available services, offering support and pathways to stability. By proactively reaching out, providing resources, and building relationships, this approach seeks to engage individuals experiencing homelessness and connect them with the necessary support to transition off the streets and towards long-term stability.

Addressing the Need

Despite the presence of numerous individuals and organizations willing to assist, until recently, Charlotte-Mecklenburg has lacked a cohesive and coordinated street outreach approach and lead agency to unite the efforts of various housing providers, grassroots organizations, government entities, law enforcement, and other stakeholders to conduct strategic outreach.

In February 2023, to optimize street outreach operations and ensure comprehensive coverage, Mecklenburg County Board of County Commissioners allocated $650,000 in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to develop a strategic response to unsheltered homelessness. This included identifying a service provider to serve as the centralized contact for street outreach and to develop and implement a program focused on strategic outreach to individuals experiencing unsheltered homelessness.  By investing in a more coordinated and strategic street outreach approach, the county aims to enhance services and better address the needs of individuals experiencing homelessness.

Rooted in the insights gained from the North End encampment project and input received from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Continuum of Care’s Unsheltered Workgroup, the primary objective of this initiative is to enhance street outreach efforts and utilize strategic collaboration among the community’s diverse service providers to bring together a comprehensive range of services to support individuals experiencing unsheltered homelessness, minimize barriers, enhance accessibility, and reduce the duration of time people spend living on the streets. This will enhance local street outreach capacity and enable us to allocate resources and personnel efficiently, ensuring that every part of the County receives the necessary support.

Mecklenburg County’s First Homeless Street Outreach Lead Agency

In April 2023, Hearts For The Invisible Charlotte Coalition, Inc. (HFTIC), was selected as the lead agency for homeless street outreach in Mecklenburg County. Jessica Lefkowitz, Executive Director is in the process of assembling a multidisciplinary outreach team that will provide housing focused street outreach to individuals and families experiencing literal homelessness. As Street Outreach Lead, HFTIC will  connect individuals and families to physical health, mental health, and substance use providers as well as other applicable community resources. In addition, HFTIC outreach efforts, will include providing therapeutic crisis interventions, case management, peer support, housing navigation, and referrals to social services. The goal of the effort is to collaborate with agencies that provide outreach services in our Charlotte-Mecklenburg. HFTIC is specifically targeting agencies that provide housing focused street outreach, peer support services, crisis interventions, employment trainings and referrals, physical and developmental mental health and substance use support, domestic violence supports, LGBTQ+ supports, veterans services, and second chance opportunities to maximize the direct services engaging the unsheltered population in Mecklenburg. They will also attempt to build relationships with agencies that offer services that may also expand our capacity to better serve people who are experiencing sheltered homelessness in Charlotte-Mecklenburg. In addition, HFTIC will  leverage technology, including the new HMIS software, to better map locations where unsheltered individuals and families are residing in order to allow outreach teams to provide more accurate location indicators for overall outreach services and for the Unsheltered Census.

In addition to implementing a strategic and coordinated approach to street outreach, as the Street Outreach Lead agency, HFTIC will  act as co-lead with Mecklenburg County Community Support Services for the annual Unsheltered Point-in-Time Count and coordinate outreach during severe weather events, by activating  collaborative street outreach teams to direct unsheltered neighbors to shelter and provide basic survival supplies to those who are resistant to services.

If you are interested in getting involved in the work to end unsheltered homelessness in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, please reach out to Jessica Lefkowitz, Executive Director, Hearts for the Invisible Charlotte Coalition, Inc at or join the Continuum of Care Unsheltered Workgroup which meets the first Thursday of each month at 2 PM.