After the North Carolina Stay at Home Order was issued nearly one year ago, the NC 2-1-1 system was flooded with calls by households seeking housing and financial assistance. 2-1-1 is the number that those facing a housing crisis in the state call to be connected to resources. In addition to an overall increase in callers, there also seemed to be a “new” at-risk population emerging from the shadows: individuals and families who had been paying either day to day or week to week to live in hotels or motels. While this form of homelessness pre-dates the pandemic, it has been considered “hidden” and there are little to no federal, state and/or local resources dedicated to addressing it.
Faced with a sudden loss of income from COVID-19-related closures, these households were now on the edge of an entirely different type of homelessness: emergency shelter and/or unsheltered locations like parks, streets, cars and tents. In addition, as the novel coronavirus started to spread locally, the tidal wave of households newly in need of shelter also posed a potential public health crisis.
This week’s blog provides an overview of the work to address this segment of the homeless population during the pandemic, and what this work can mean for Charlotte-Mecklenburg.
THE “HIDDEN” HOMELESS
The definitions for homelessness used by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the U.S. Department of Education (USED) both include emergency shelter, transitional housing, and those sleeping in unsheltered locations. The HUD definition also includes households who are temporarily staying in hotels that have been paid for by another organization; in this sense, it is considered an extension of shelter.
In contrast, the definition used by USED to define student homelessness also includes those living in doubled up situations with family and/or friends; paying to stay in hotels or motels; abandoned in hospitals; and/or awaiting foster care placement. While this broader definition exists for student homelessness, the numbers reported are limited primarily to students. We do not currently have an accurate estimate for the total number of households (including those without students) who are experiencing homelessness in the community by paying to stay in hotels. Until this number is available, we can approximate the need by the number of households who seek assistance.
This hidden population has income and, in fact, generally pays the same amount or more than what they would be paying if they were renting or paying a mortgage. But, barriers such as high security deposits, poor credit rating, prior rent and/or utility debt, large family size and other related constraints keep such households from accessing the affordable units that are available.
SERVING THE “HIDDEN” HOMELESS DURING THE PANDEMIC
During the early months of the pandemic, several community organizations played a key role in ensuring households were able to safely “shelter-in-place” and if needed, isolate or quarantine, in their hotel rooms. Crisis Assistance Ministry provided financial assistance to support households in hotels who suffered a loss of income. The United Way of Central Carolinas convened community stakeholders to identify strategies and solutions that could be sustained during and after the pandemic. The North Carolina eviction moratorium enacted on May 30, 2020 by Executive Order 142 provided additional short-term protections for households facing eviction. Legal Aid of North Carolina successfully advocated that households who considered a hotel to be their primary residence were also eligible for the same protections as tenants renting an apartment under the eviction moratorium. Finally, Mecklenburg County Community Support Services stepped up, helping to transition the work in this segment, initially focused on crisis management, to an effective long-term response.
As part of the long-term response, Coordinated Entry, which is considered the “front door” of the homeless services system, began triaging households residing in hotels and connecting them to partner agencies who had volunteered case management services. This represented a significant change in operations in order to serve additional households. Staff from Mecklenburg County Community Support Services and the Department of Social Services partnered with social workers from Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools, Safe Alliance, Salvation Army Center of Hope, Roof Above, and The Relatives to support households; share information regarding unemployment assistance and other resources; and provide referrals for financial resources to prevent homelessness.
Despite these successful new partnerships, and increases in support and state protections to help households in hotels, none of these resources were able to resolve the pre-existing conditions that created these situations in the first place. The continued economic pressures from the pandemic only exacerbated these pre-existing conditions. Community leaders and organizations recognized the need for long-term assistance to support these households so that they could stay safely sheltered as long as possible with an eye toward permanent affordable housing.
SocialServe received funding through the Community Development Block Grant, which is administered by the City of Charlotte, to cover rent (first month) and security deposits for any household able to secure permanent housing. They were also able to provide financial assistance to cover hotel expenses until housing was identified. The City of Charlotte allocated a portion of its Emergency Solutions Grant (ESG) funds to re-house 100 households with 12-month subsidy, coupled with supportive services. After funding was secured, a prioritization process was established and approved by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Continuum of Care, and implemented in October 2020. As of March 2, 2021, 80 households have been assigned to a housing subsidy; supportive services are provided through Community Link, Salvation Army, and Supportive Housing Communities. Since March, over 1,047 households (nearly 2,300 individuals) have been served with 148 households exiting to permanent housing. Currently there are 223 individuals enrolled.
During the pandemic, communities have tried many new strategies and approaches to addressing old problems that existed long before COVID-19. And, some of these new strategies and approaches could (and should) continue permanently. The work to support homeless households in hotels has also taught us the importance of flexibility: in funding, design, implementation and ongoing operations.
When external circumstances are changing daily, it is vital that the programs are nimble so that they can be both effective and trauma-informed. In order to truly meet people “where they are,” programs must be funded, designed and implemented to intentionally do so.
COVID-19 has shined a spotlight on the “hidden homeless,” causing the community to find ways to protect them to, in turn, keep everyone safe and healthy. Now out of the shadows, it is essential that we look upstream to ensure that these and all other households living on the edge of housing instability and homelessness can both obtain and sustain their housing. Permanent solutions are needed to place and keep households in permanent housing. After all, these households were already paying to stay in a room; it just wasn’t theirs to keep.
Karen Pelletier is the Business Manager for Mecklenburg County Community Support Services. She is responsible for the day to day operations of the department as well as leading a variety of community initiatives that positively impact vulnerable populations.