Roof Above and their partners are tackling Charlotte’s homelessness and affordable housing problem

 By Charlie Leonard

March 11, 2021

Before Uptown’s North End homeless encampment sprawled out along I-277 and became an obvious symbol of the many people lacking basic human needs, it could easily seem like Charlotte didn’t have a homelessness issue. In a city that’s been ascending on a regional and national scale in many arenas, it was eye-opening to those that didn’t know, or didn’t want to believe. 

“It shocked people’s systems in terms of the realities of homelessness,” said Liz Clasen-Kelly, CEO of the Charlotte housing and homeless services nonprofit, Roof Above. “That encampment forced our community to see a reality that otherwise people could choose to ignore.”

Image of “Tent City” North End encampment.

The Affordable Housing Reality

The prosperity Charlotte enjoys is exactly what makes it vulnerable. A 2018 UN report projects that Charlotte’s urban population will grow to over 2.5 million by 2030, making the region one of the fastest growing cities in the entire U.S. The rapid increase in demand is visually apparent by the number of cranes towering all over Charlotte to build new luxury apartments and townhomes to supplement the growth. It’s a completely different story for more affordable housing options. 

While luxury options are increasing, affordable housing in the Charlotte area is decreasing, and fast. In 2010, data from the Mecklenburg County Housing and Homelessness Dashboard showed that low-cost rental housing options comprised 51% of the market share; by 2018, that number was down to 25%. A 2020 report shows a deficit of over 23,000 affordable housing units for households below 30% the area median income (AMI) of $26,200. The result is pressure to “rent up,” or spend more than the advised 30% of income on housing expenses, eventually leading to housing instability. More than 91% of renters with an income under $20,000 are cost burdened, and with median rental costs outpacing wage growth for low income households, Clasen-Kelly said the system is not working.

“The wages in Charlotte and the housing market are incongruent,” Clasen-Kelly said. “You can be working full-time and not afford to live here. You can be working two full-time jobs and not afford to live here.”

An increasing affordable housing problem, partnered with a downturn in the economy due to the pandemic, has seen rent assistance calls to skyrocket to 907%. As of January 31, 2021, there are over 3000 individuals experiencing homelessness in the Charlotte area.

Liz Clasen-Kelly and the Fight Against Homelessness

For Clasen-Kelly, the issue of homelessness in Charlotte is nothing new, but her approach has evolved with the times. Originally from Kingsport, Tennessee, Clasen-Kelly attended Davidson College 30 minutes up the road from Uptown. While attending college, she interned at Piedmont Courts, a former housing project at the corner of 10th and 12th Streets in Uptown, and one of Charlotte’s original housing developments. It was this internship that prompted Clasen-Kelly to dedicate her life to fighting homelessness.

Liz Clasen-Kelly, CEO of the Charlotte housing and homeless services nonprofit, Roof Above.

In 2001, Clasen-Kelly joined the staff at Urban Ministry Center, an Uptown nonprofit with an unyielding mission to help the most vulnerable homeless populations in Charlotte. Only three years removed from opening in 1994, the Urban Ministry Center provided essential services for basic human needs like a place to shower and wash dirty clothes, a soup kitchen, and mail services. The primary focus was on individuals who actively suffered from addiction or mental health issues, many of whom returned often for those exact reasons. As Clasen-Kelly watched the same people return day after day for weeks or years, she realized that an unyielding ministry of meeting basic needs was not enough.

“At some point, it’s like, that’s not love. Just to keep people alive in their homelessness is not enough, right?” she said. “We’ve got to move beyond that. People do need to survive, but we’re managing people in their homeless status instead of ending homelessness.”

To truly serve the homeless population, a community shift was needed to meet the root cause of homelessness: housing. At a conference she attended, Clasen-Kelly was introduced to the idea of Housing First, a theory that posits the acquisition of the home as the “foundation for life improvement.” Affordable housing then is prioritized before treating other issues such as finding a job or attending to substance abuse issues. Data from Housing First programs show faster access to housing and a long-term housing retention rate of up to 98%. It was a lightbulb moment for Clasen-Kelly.

In Charlotte, EverybodyCountsCLT staff and hundreds of volunteers go out– often in the middle of the night and early morning hours– to meet people where they are sleeping.

“I immediately thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is the answer.’ It just made total sense,” she said. “But my second thought was, are we allowed to do that? It was so counter [to] how the whole system was devised.” 

While the concept struck a chord with Clasen-Kelly, many external organizations– but also some internally within the Urban Ministry Center– did not approve of this model. “People who were really passionate about sobriety felt like it enabled folks and allowed people to persist in their disease of addiction.” Despite opposition, the Urban Ministry Center opened their original Housing First project in 2008 and, as the years went by, more units, programs, and housing focused staff were added to advance the nonprofit’s new direction.

The Merger

In 2019, the Urban Ministry Center merged with the Men’s Shelter of Charlotte, another housing service nonprofit off N. Tryon St, to become Roof Above with Clasen-Kelly as CEO. Where the Urban Ministry Center provided the street outreach, day services, and housing, the Men’s Shelter of Charlotte “filled in the middle,” according to Clasen-Kelly with the addition of an emergency shelter and rapid rehousing services. Both organizations were in good financial shape going into the merger and were operating independent of each other, but Clasen-Kelly expressed the boards of both organizations felt like combining forces would be best to serve the whole continuum of the homelessness struggle.

The 341-unit Hillrock Estates operated in partnership with Ascent Capital.

Roof Above strives to meet the continuum with a variety of services and housing programs. The services include a Day Services Center for street outreach, a 230-bed Men’s Shelter open 24/7 with additional assistance in areas like employment and wellness, and a 180-bed Men’s Overnight Shelter that serves dinner and breakfast daily. The housing side features two prominent projects in Moore Place, a 120-studio apartment facility with on-site case managers, nurses, and activities to help the chronically homeless. The 341-unit Hillrock Estates also serves a range of incomes and is operated in partnership with Ascent Capital. Other options include Scattered Site Housing which includes permanent supportive housing, rapid rehousing for the situationally homeless, subsidized housing, and more employment centered housing through MeckHOME, and SABER (Substance Abuse Education and Recovery), a nine-month outpatient recovery treatment center for men fighting addiction.

In November of 2020, Roof Above made another acquisition, partially in response to the challenges brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic and to prepare for the winter months ahead. The 88-unit hotel at the intersection of Clanton Road and I-77 served as an immediate emergency shelter for women and families through the winter, but would eventually undergo a transformation into permanent housing. The renovations, with an estimated cost of $6 million, will provide residents with updated amenities that include the addition of a kitchen to each unit. Essentially, the hotel will replicate the Moore Place project.

The 88-unit hotel at the intersection of Clanton Road and I-77 acquired in November of 2020. 

With the blend of basic needs services and a growing portfolio of housing, Clasen-Kelly’s mission of ending homelessness is coming to fruition piece by piece.

“We developed programs that have a high level of support,” she explained. “We believe everyone by virtue of being human is ready for housing, it’s just a question of how much support someone needs to be successful and healthy.” 

The City and Community Response

Slowly but surely, the community and the city of Charlotte have begun to take action on tackling the affordable housing crisis. With the help of the community at the ballot box during the November 2020 elections, the city passed $50 million dollars of bond funding that will subsidize the Housing Diversity Program. The program aids in increasing the supply of low and moderate income housing and the preservation of existing housing through rehabilitation of single and multi-family units. 

Part of the preservation effort relies on utilizing naturally occurring affordable housing (NOAH). A leader in the NOAH acquisition process is Mark Etheridge of Ascent Capital, the ownership group who worked with Roof Above in the acquisition of Hillrock Estates. Clasen-Kelly explained that a NOAH is typically an older apartment complex that has a rent of around $750 a month. Groups like Ascent Capital and Roof Above will then work to acquire the NOAH and then preserve them for affordable housing. If a property is not acquired by a group intent on preservation, an outside party separate from those groups could swoop in and tear down the site or renovate the property, raising the rents exponentially and exacerbating housing instability. Clasen-Kelly said that preservation in general is key to homelessness prevention, and out of other cities such as Minneapolis, Washington DC, and Austin that have tried NOAH preservation, she believes Charlotte is the nationwide leader. 

During the pandemic, the response from the community has been even more pronounced. “I think Covid has been really scary and daunting, and the number one thing that could make you safe was your home,” Clasen-Kelly said. “I think people naturally understood how horrible it would be to be going through this without that basic dignity of home.”

A concerted effort from nonprofits like Roof Above, the community, and the leadership of the city of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County is essential for solving the affordable housing crisis. On February 16, that cooperation was put to its biggest test.

The North End Encampment

On February 16, the Mecklenburg County Health Department ordered the North End encampment cleared following an abatement order, giving residents of what was dubbed “Tent City” 72 hours to leave. Clasen-Kelly and Roof Above immediately went into action.

Roof Above has been brought in often to help with clearing homeless encampments and had already been working in the North End encampment to help connect residents to housing, shelters, and alternatives. The organization had already helped dozens of residents before the clearing started.

On February 20, Clasen-Kelly and the Roof Above team were at the site to make sure residents weren’t still in their tents, and if they were, she and the team would help the residents problem solve and get connected to resources. While the team continued to finalize the clearing of the encampment, Clasen-Kelly worked at one of the motels with staff, helping with case management and the motel’s day-to-day operations.

Image of “Tent City” North End encampment.

When the dust had settled, Clasen-Kelly felt like the clearing of the North End encampment went smoothly, especially when considering how short the time frame was.

“The reality is 214 people moved from the street and into a motel,” she said. 

There were mixed emotions from the residents of the North End encampment on the clearing. Some members of the encampment were hesitant to leave after living there for months. “For those people, it was being evicted from your sense of home. I don’t want to call it a home, but it’s someone’s sense of home,” she said. At the same time, many residents were thrilled and grateful to leave. “I’ve been spending many hours and having great conversations with people about housing, about getting connected to healthcare, you know, reconnecting with kids. Folks, for the most part, are seeing this opportunity as a pivot moment. And so we want to show up there and help people pivot to a more stable life that allows them to live into their potential.”

Looking Forward and How the Community Can Help

The complications that have arisen from Covid-19 and eventually brought about the North End encampment have seen a shift in how the community deals with the ever present issues of housing and homelessness.

“I definitely have experienced during Covid the most compassionate and engaged community response that I’ve ever known us to have around homelessness,” Clasen-Kelly said. “As Roof Above, and as other providers, how do we take that moment and the community and translate it into housing and translate it into a solution?”

Kenneth, a shelter guest, moving into his room.

Despite the unique challenges the pandemic has brought on, Clasen-Kelly said that fighting homelessness is still possible from a community standpoint on many different fronts. First, it’s important to stay educated. This means checking on the housing reports and staying as informed as possible. Through education, the community can then effectively advocate for more solutions on housing and homelessness issues. Second, the community can volunteer during the pandemic by making sandwiches and bagging lunches, and then engage in person after the pandemic has ended. Third, donations are important not just to Roof Above, but other nonprofits that are also in the fight against homelessness and housing instability.

The problem of housing and homelessness is now more apparent than ever. The massive expanse of the North End encampment was shocking to many as the city had never seen anything like that before. It’s important to realize as Charlotte grows that homelessness is not an isolated incident, that challenges will still exist after the pandemic is gone and, most importantly, that homelessness and housing instability can happen to anybody. No matter who we are, where we’ve been, or what we believe will happen next, we are all human beings, and that means acknowledging each other’s struggles, and ultimately each other.

“So many people experiencing homelessness describe feeling invisible, that no one ever wants to look at them, or they look through them or look past them,” said Clasen-Kelly. “And so I often think that just simply looking at, acknowledging, and greeting someone has a humanizing impact. And I think that it’s important to acknowledge humanity.”

Learn more about Roof Above and their mission on their official website. Stay educated by checking in on Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s Housing and Homelessness Dashboard.

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