COVID-19 Can’t Stop the Mission to Move People Out of Homelessness

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the work to find stable housing for Charlotte’s most vulnerable neighbors continues. It has to.

“We are still working with our housing partners to get people into permanent housing because one of the things about homelessness is that it doesn’t stop. So, our work can’t stop,” said Deronda Metz, director of social services for The Salvation Army of Greater Charlotte.

Metz, along with several other staff members, helped move seven families out of the shelter or local motels and into apartment units last week. The moves came just in time for these families to experience Easter weekend in their own places, nearby to grocery stores, transportation and job opportunities.

“I was searching for housing for a long time, and this is everything I wanted and so much more,” said one mom (whose name is omitted to protect her privacy).

Stable housing – and stability, in general – is the key to many of the ills that not only Charlotte residents face, but also residents across many of the nation’s urban centers. The COVID-19 pandemic has shone a brighter light on the vulnerability of populations experiencing homelessness and low-income families.

On a recent web panel from Urban Land Institute, Megan Sandel, an associate professor of pediatrics at Boston University talked about how housing acts as a kind of vaccine against all types of illnesses.

“You can’t separate your health from where you live,” she said. Though social factors like food security, housing instability, or healthcare costs are often talked about in isolated terms, she adds, they are actually interlaced, and the pandemic is highlighting those connections.

In order to protect the most vulnerable people, The Salvation Army has worked hard to move families from its shelter into temporary lodging in local motels – thanks to the support of the United Way of Central Carolinas and Mecklenburg County. This critical effort has helped to protect these individuals from exposure to the virus and to keep them safe and healthy. Social distancing in a shelter environment – especially one with limited remaining space – is a difficult task. That’s why these mitigation strategies were critical.

But, that is just the beginning, as the work to move people into more permanent and sustainable housing must go on today to avoid an even bigger crisis tomorrow.

“We know homelessness will continue to be a big issue in Charlotte when this pandemic is over. There will be more people experiencing housing loss,” said Metz. “Our goal is for the families experiencing homelessness today not to be a part of the issue tomorrow.”

With seven families moving out of the shelter, seven more take their place. The issue lies in having available units, not in having clients to move in them or even rental subsidies to support them as they get on their feet.

“We need property managers who are willing to work with us,” added Metz. The Salvation Army of Greater Charlotte is able to provide rental subsidies and access to case managers to ensure successful rental relationships between clients and property managers.

Homelessness and the shortage of affordable housing is well documented in Charlotte, but it’s not unique to the Queen City.

“We’ve been having a homeless crisis for a long time. This issue (COVID-19) just brought it to light,” said Metz. “People are beginning to see what we as homeless service providers have seen for a long time. It’s a crisis all over this country.”

National experts agree.

“Even before COVID-19 came to this country we had a shortage of seven million homes affordable and available to the lowest income people,” says Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, also speaking on the Urban Land Institute panel. That means for every 100 of the lowest income renters in the U.S.—who are often seniors, people with disabilities, and families with young kids—fewer than 37 homes are affordable and available to them. The coalition estimates at least another 1.5 million renter households will become severely cost burdened because of the pandemic and related recession. (Read more about the panel in this article from Fast Company).

For now, these seven families have a safe place to practice social distancing and focus on staying healthy. They expressed how grateful they were for the support of the Salvation Army during this time, and they acknowledged the staff’s commitment to getting everyone moved in successfully. There were lots of smiles, laughter and happy tears…something few have been able to experience these last few weeks.

Given the interconnectedness of housing stability and health and wellness, these seven families are able to have hope about what the future holds, and that’s a good thing. But, the fight for others doesn’t stop. There’s more work to do.

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