Charlotte, NC and Mecklenburg County have worked to end veteran homelessness and driven remarkable progress despite the Covid-19 pandemic. Since 2019, the community of 1.11 million has reduced veteran homelessness by 20%. Now, their goal is to reduce it by 30% by the end of 2021.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s homeless response system demonstrated it can drive these population-level reductions by facing head on many key challenges, which included:
- Covid-19 pandemic
- Lack of affordable housing
- Lack of landlords willing to accept rental subsidies from people experiencing homelessness, including veterans
- Lack of flexible funding sources to ensure smooth transitions of veterans into housing
- Inequities that result in the over-representation of Black persons in the homeless population
The Charlotte-Mecklenburg team navigated these challenges and advanced their journey toward functional zero by leveraging their strengths of teamwork, humor, and trust, along with strong relationships within the county.
The number of veterans experiencing homelessness is now approaching pre-pandemic levels, which is a victory. The number of veterans on the community’s by-name list spiked at 300, but have since reduced to 223 as of June 2021.
“Even though we’ve seen our numbers increase, we’re holding steady on the veterans,” said MaryAnn Priester, Built for Zero Veterans Data Lead, Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) Management Analyst, Mecklenburg County Community Support Services Department. “We haven’t seen a huge explosion, which speaks to the good work being done by the VA, the county, and all of our partners.”
Foundational by-name data
Having system-wide, real-time data has allowed Charlotte-Mecklenburg to make many system improvements and drive reductions. Several years ago, the county created multiple positions with the aim of prioritizing data in their work, including Priester’s HMIS Management Analyst role, alongside a homelessness and housing data and research coordinator. The latter was designed to share data to the community in an easily accessible way, which has included employing a public dashboard.
The community’s dashboard includes:
- System performance measures;
- Inflow into and out of homelessness for various populations including chronically homeless and homeless veterans;
- A weekly blog that provides local, state and national context around homelessness and housing instability;
- A report series produced by the UNC-Charlotte Urban Institute funded by Mecklenburg County; and
- Disaggregated data by race and age, which has allowed the team to better target resources and identify strategies to reduce racial disparities.
“This shows if we’re moving the needle on homelessness,” Priester said.
“It really takes a team effort, because it’s a huge problem. It’s a problem that we’ve proven that we can make progress when we all put our heads together.”
— Darren Dubose, Housing Our Heroes Co-Lead, Case Coordinator with Mecklenburg County Community Support Services Department
Cultivating case conferencing
With this understanding and ownership of a by-name, real-time data, the team has the foundation needed for its case conferencing practice to thrive.
Like many Built for Zero community teams, Charlotte-Mecklenburg focused on improving their case conferencing practice over the past year. A core group of 12 people meet twice a month, mostly virtually throughout the pandemic, to connect veterans on the community’s by-name list to housing and resources available across the community. This includes representatives from at least eight different local and government agencies regularly attend case conferencing, including staff from outreach, shelters, Mecklenburg County Community Support Services, the VA, and Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) providers such as Catholic Charities and Veterans Bridge Home.
“The fact that we have the right people at the table…there’s ownership and accountability,” said Thomas Jacobs, Care Coordinator for Veterans Bridge Home.
He added that sometimes staff from eight different agencies may be discussing one veteran at a meeting, offering up different sets of resources they have available in the quest to successfully house the individual.
“More hands to the task makes the task lighter,” explained Darren Dubose, Housing Our Heroes Co-Lead. “It takes a collaborative of agencies. I could not fathom how this could be done without having different people interested in helping out homeless veterans.”
Practice Improvements and the Case Conferencing Cohort
In November 2020, a majority of the Charlotte team attended Built for Zero’s Case Conferencing Summit to explore ways all communities, no matter their level of experience, could improve their case conferencing practice, with support from BFZ’s new Case Conferencing Toolbank. Following November’s Case Conferencing Summit, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg team joined the Case Conferencing Cohort in the spring of 2021 and focused on increasing their monthly veteran housing placements over the three-month experience. They established a goal of increasing their housing placements by 30%, requiring nine housing placements per month rather than their current rate of seven placements per month.
“It was great hearing from other communities and how they’re doing. It was also really comforting to hear that there were already things that we were doing and doing well,” said Beth Parks, Veterans Social Worker at Salvation Army Center of Hope and Case Conferencing Lead. “It also gave us a roadmap to figure out where we could improve and some ways to figure out how to improve it.”
Taking on additional leadership roles, learning how to facilitate difficult conversations, and maintaining a client-focused mindset were some of the team’s big takeaways from the Summit and the Cohort.
“People are more intentional about what they’re doing,” commented Kecia Robinson, Social Worker and Coordinated Entry Specialist at the Salisbury VA Health Care System. She also mentioned that another learning was the importance of accountability: “Making sure we’re going to follow up what we’re going to say with what we’re going to do, and then bringing that information back to the team.”
The team then explored different ways to accomplish their goals in the cohort. They began setting ambitious target move-in dates to keep everyone focused on monthly progress and pushed themselves in each case conferencing meeting.
“We would put that in people’s minds — can we actually get people moved in by these dates?” Parks said.
In March 2021, the team reached their goal of nine veterans per month moving to housing, and then continued to exceed it. 16 veterans moved to housing in April and 18 in May. Not ones to be satisfied, Parks and the team continue to evaluate and likely increase the original goal.
“Maybe we should increase the number of vets we’re aiming to house each month from nine to 12, for example,” Park said. “Then in case conferencing we can bring that up, which ultimately helps our 30% goals as well.”
Breaking their system-wide aspirations into more manageable waypoints — and celebrating those successes along the way — has been a turning point.
“That sets us up for this mindset of taking smaller bites and that it’s okay to focus on specific populations on the list, rather than trying to tackle the whole list at one time,” Parks said.
Driving reductions through COVID-19
The Covid-19 pandemic proved to be an incredible challenge for communities across the nation. Charlotte-Mecklenburg took advantage of the various resources made available to accelerate their efforts to house as many people as possible.
One opportunity made possible by the pandemic was temporarily housing veterans and other individuals experiencing homelessness in hotels for safe distancing. With the veterans on their by-name list in an accessible and stationary location, Charlotte team members were more easily able to conduct outreach and work with each person to find the best housing solution for them.
“It seems like a lot of communities have really improved their system during the pandemic,” Priester commented, “They’ve had the freedom to think outside the box.”
COVID-related Federal funding such as the CARES Act, Emergency Rental Assistance (ERA), and the American Rescue Plan provided funding for temporary hotel stays and critical staff positions, including two navigator positions.
Persons with lived experience elevated the need for a prevention navigator to the Continuum of Care’s Coordinated Entry Oversight Committee. Currently, 211 is the central entry point for people in Mecklenburg County experiencing a housing crisis to access available housing resources. Community feedback indicated that clients often need more assistance exploring other means of support to help divert them from the homelessness system by keeping them housed where they were.
“In tandem with the eviction moratorium, preventative efforts have been able to stave off massive inflow [into homelessness],” Priester said.
Landlord engagement: An opportunity to accelerate
One important resource Charlotte-Mecklenburg regularly identifies as lacking is affordable housing units and landlords willing to accept rental subsidies from veterans and other homeless households. The community, however, has been striving to find workable solutions to bridge these gaps and accelerate reductions in veteran homelessness.
“We had all these resources coming down the pike, but no one to help the clients with their housing search, securing documentation, and just that extra touch required to help them into housing,” Priester said.
The VA offered solutions by bringing on two dedicated housing navigators, whose roles are devoted solely to overcome those hurdles. As navigators, they help clear the path for veterans to be matched with housing that meets their needs.
“I’ve had several veterans who have had vouchers for a while and been struggling, and since getting the housing people at the VA, they’ve now miraculously found places for them,” Parks said. “So that’s been a huge, huge help for us.”
In addition to their roles supporting clients, the housing navigators are also tasked with fostering relationships with local landlords with the aim of acquiring more available units.
“One of the divides is that a lot of the individuals that manage or own apartments or land don’t know about the resources that are available to assist veterans with rent or don’t know that they’re needed,” Dubose explained. “The housing navigator therefore is on the ground level with the landlords, serving as the ‘go-between.”
These navigators not only build relationships but also overcome hesitancies landlords might have by explaining the availability of case management and wrap-around services to support potential tenants.
Literally knocking on doors, when it’s safe to do so, is one of the strategies that housing navigators employ to recruit new landlords.
“You send emails, you make phone calls, and you have some success with that, but the face-to-face interaction has been the most fruitful,” said Gregory Brooks, Housing Specialist, Veterans Administration. “We explain the benefits to working with our program, the origin of the program, and how it impacts veteran homelessness on a national level.”
They also explain what the voucher will cover, what the new veteran tenant will pay, and what additional financial assistance is available to address any hesitations from potential landlords. “We’re the human services organization, they’re the business people,” Brooks said.
Sometimes, starting small is the best way forward. “When we have apprehensive housing providers, we ask them to just give us one unit and try it out,” noted Tara Peele, President and CEO of Socialserve, a nonprofit that connects people to housing. “The relationship usually grows from there.”
Nonetheless, affordable housing is lacking throughout Charlotte, and the pandemic has only exacerbated this problem, even with available vouchers or funding able to assist veterans with rent.
Priester put it simply: “We need landlords to rent to veterans.”
The road ahead
Through collaboration across agencies, creative use of resources, and deliberate efforts to create racially equitable outcomes, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg team has been able to make strides and reduce veteran homelessness even during the pandemic.
Much is still needed to accelerate the efforts and declare a functional end to veteran homelessness and homelessness in other populations.
“We need more participation from community partners to help us and join our team. We definitely need more landlords, and just more hands on deck to do the work,” Robinson said. “It really does take a village.”
Despite the challenges ahead, the community is making progress.
“We are housing veterans every day,” Priester said. “We are preventing veteran homelessness every day.”