Roof Above, Charlotte’s leading advocate and resource for people without homes, redoubles its efforts through the pandemic.
by Michael J. Solender
A 2020 Charlotte-Mecklenburg report released late last year illustrated what many in our community know all too well: Housing instability and homelessness, while predating the pandemic, have been exacerbated by Covid-19, leaving alarming numbers of our neighbors vulnerable. The February evacuation of tent city, a temporary homeless community that sprung up last year near uptown, further amplified the issue.
Liz Clasen-Kelly, CEO of Roof Above, a nonprofit organization working to eradicate homelessness in our community, believes homelessness can be conquered. The agency was established in May 2019 through the merger of Urban Ministry Center and Men’s Shelter of Charlotte. With a full- and part-time staff of 170 and an annual budget of more than $14 million, Roof Above provides street outreach, shelter and other services to more than 1,200 people daily.
In September, Roof Above announced that it had purchased HillRock Estates, an apartment community in east Charlotte, where it will preserve all 341 units for affordable housing. Three months later, the organization acquired an 88-unit Quality Inn hotel in west Charlotte, with plans to turn it into a supportive housing community.
Clasen-Kelly has spent nearly two decades with the organization and its predecessors. She began her journey serving homeless people as an intern the summer after her freshman year at Davidson College. She spoke with SouthPark about how the agency she leads addresses immediate needs of people experiencing homelessness in Charlotte and advocates for systemic change in combatting this growing public health and economic challenge.
Comments have been edited for length and clarity.
Why did the two agencies merge?
This was not a merger about efficiencies. It was about having greater impact in the community and being able to do more to move the needle on homelessness. Urban Ministry Center [focused on] serving the street, the population who’s sleeping outside, through the Day Services Center and intensive housing solutions. Men’s Shelter of Charlotte focused on in-between needs — emergency shelter and short-term housing solutions. Through the merger, we created an entire continuum for individuals experiencing homelessness.
What are some outcomes from the merger that likely wouldn’t have happened before?
Early in the merger, Mecklenburg County passed $14 million in rent subsidies. It was a phenomenal opportunity for us. I went to the housing teams of Urban Ministry Center and Men’s Shelter of Charlotte, and said, “What housing program could we create?” We created two programs, one serving people who are working and one serving folks who are disabled and our seniors. I think that’s when we started to see the promise of this merger and going through a pandemic, the ways we’ve been able to respond and announce the purchase of HillRock Estates and the purchase of a hotel. Those feel like dreams and ideas that likely would not have come about if we were still two separate agencies.
How do you develop continuous support for the people you serve, given your various community partners?
Roof Above is not going to end homelessness. Embedded in our mission is a call to invite others to join us and to be collaborative. There’s sometimes a mistaken sense the homeless-services world is fractured or competitive. The reality is, we have amazing organizations and amazing leaders focused on the people we serve. When people are coming to the table with similar values, it’s easy to figure out how we work together. We’re partnering with a great array of workforce providers to help folks we serve increase their income. We partner with health care providers to provide nursing and mental-health services on-site. It takes many partners every day, and we’re fortunate to have those.
Describe the impact of the pandemic and the tent encampment near uptown on homelessness in Charlotte.
The pandemic, without question, is a time of great loss for our world, our community. Our hotel purchase was a unique opportunity that came about from the pandemic and from, unfortunately, the distressed [lodging] industry. We were able to lease an unused old college dorm and bring that online. Because of the visibility of the large encampment and the visceral knowledge that “home” is what keeps one safe during the pandemic, the community’s consciousness has been prepped in a new way this past year, and that is very meaningful for us, because people are asking questions they haven’t asked before. The reality is that we had dozens of people sleeping outside in tents prior to the pandemic, but now you can’t ignore it. It wasn’t congregated in a way that has galvanized the community as it is now.
What myths surround homelessness, and what do you wish people better understood?
Homelessness is solvable. It is not an inevitable reality. I deeply to my core believe we could be a country without thousands of people in shelters and on our streets. It’s important for people to know [that] many people we serve have income. They’re working or receiving retirement income. There’s a perception that if you’re working, you can afford housing in this community. It takes 113 hours a week working at minimum wage to afford the average two-bedroom apartment in Charlotte. About half the folks who come to us have some form of income. I think that surprises people. … When people say, “What can I do?” It starts with recognizing the full humanity of someone experiencing homelessness, because when you really feel the weight and value of a human life, it changes everything. SP