Orange County

‘Housing first’ helps homeless find shelter and dignity

For Ellen Miller, the stress of homelessness was constant.

“You’re so worried about, OK, where and how am I gonna find something to eat?” Miller said. “Where am I gonna sleep tonight that I’m gonna feel safe? You know, where am I gonna bathe?

“Is my stuff still gonna be there when I get back? Who’s going to get in my face today for no apparent reason and lose their mind, and want to beat the hell out of me for no reason?”

Miller eventually found help through an organization that works with those facing chronic homelessness.

Stephen McQueen is the director of operations for HousingWorks with Urban Ministry Center, which opened Moore Place in Charlotte in 2012. Moore Place provides apartments for 85 chronically homeless adults. While it is not a requirement, he said every tenant struggles with a mental illness or substance abuse.

Miller moved into Moore Place in May 2016, and she is still adjusting. She said she spent the first three nights in her apartment sleeping in her closet because she felt uncomfortable in the open.

“You’re constantly waiting for somebody to tell you, you gotta go, because that’s what happens on the street,” Miller said.

Miller said her life is better now that she can shower when she wants and cook her own food. She still struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder, but hasn’t had a seizure since she moved in.

Nathan Copeland, a psychiatry resident at UNC Hospitals, visited Moore Place a few years ago with Cardinal Innovations, an organization in Orange County that was curious about the program that emphasizes a “housing first” model for people who are homeless for long periods of time.

“Dignity’s kind of an underestimated thing,” Copeland said. “And (it) just gave people dignity back in many ways. It allowed them the opportunity to get better.”

McQueen said the money Charlotte saved because of Moore Place impressed many people.

Emergency room visits were cut by 81 percent for individuals who moved into Moore Place. In its first year alone, the program saved Charlotte $1.8 million, the Charlotte Observer reported.

McQueen said Moore Place’s success can spread, but counties need money.

Rep. Verla Insko has worked on trying to increase funding for mental health services. She said the best way to do that would be through a tax increase. But Insko said the legislature has focused on tax and budget cuts, making it more difficult to find funding.

Mental health has continued to face budget cuts to Single Stream Funding, which provides care for people with high-level need who do not qualify for Medicaid, including a $110 million cut in 2015 and a $152 million cut in 2016.

Copeland has seen the effects of budget cuts in his six years of training at UNC. In that time, he said the number of mental health patients waiting in the emergency department jumped from between five and 10 people to between 30 and 40 people.

Patricia Hussey, executive director for Freedom House Recovery Center, said because of deinstitutionalization and subsequent budget cuts, many people are not receiving the care that they need.

“There are some good services out there,” Hussey said. “It’s just not enough is what I would say.”

McQueen said other communities could find similar success with a model like Moore Place’s.

“It’s not complicated,” he said. “It’s not mysterious. It’s just taking people where they are, getting them housed, and helping them find services to keep themselves healthy.”