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Dionne Artis watched sheriff’s deputies knock on the doors of several neighbors in her east Charlotte apartment complex, one by one, to evict them.
It was only a matter of time, she recalls, until they got to hers.
“And then it was us,” she said. “That was it.”
The 52-year-old Army veteran had fallen behind on rent and after unsuccessful attempts at getting help, was facing homelessness in January.
Nearly a year later Artis is living in a new townhouse with her son, after getting help to find housing with a federal voucher for homeless veterans.
As 2021 comes to a close, Mecklenburg County is trying to reach its goal of reducing veteran homelessness by 30% this year. To do so, they need housing for nearly 30 veterans this month.
But finding an affordable apartment — and a willing landlord — is a constant challenge, even with guaranteed rent payments.
What they need now, county and nonprofit leaders say, are landlords willing to accept vouchers and rental subsidies that help pay the rent for veterans and their families.
That can be difficult in a housing market as tight as Charlotte’s, where rents are rising and landlords can be increasingly choosy.
More than 50 local homeless veterans already have access to a voucher or other subsidy but have not yet found a landlord to take it, said Mary Ann Priester, homeless management information system coordinator for the county.
“We do not have landlords on the back end despite having those resources to assist these veterans in exiting their homelessness,” she said. “And it’s tough, right? Because we need landlords for everybody experiencing homelessness in our community.”
There are 197 homeless veterans in Mecklenburg County as of Oct. 31, according to county data. Homelessness increased across the board this year, including for veterans.
There were 181 homeless veterans identified in the county in July 2020. That number climbed to 260 in February, before gradually coming down to just around 200 in the late summer.
At the end of October, 45 veterans were chronically homeless, which is defined as homelessness lasting at least a year or four episodes in three years, plus a disabling condition.
Many local homeless veterans are in their 50s, 60s and 70s, Priester said. But she’s seeing an emerging trend of younger veterans who find themselves homeless only a few years after their service ends.
Barriers and successes
Two major ways to get veterans into housing are through the Supportive Services for Veteran Families rapid-rehousing subsidy and HUD-VASH vouchers, which provide permanent supportive housing through the federal departments of Housing and Urban Development and Veterans Affairs.
But veterans, like others experiencing homelessness, have significant barriers to housing, said Thomas Jacobs, community liaison and care coordinator for Veterans Bridge Home, which helps service members transition to civilian life.
Rents continue to increase. Many rental owners require applicants to have a monthly income that is three times the asking rent, even if payments are guaranteed by rental subsidies. Previous evictions or a criminal record — sometimes tied to lingering effects of their service — can disqualify applicants entirely, he said.
But Jacobs said he’s asking landlords to give people a chance.
“Those old things come back to haunt them,” he said. “We need landlords that are willing to work with them ... At least give them opportunity to start fresh.”
Organizations like Veterans Services of the Carolinas fight for veterans in a tough rental market, said Jessica Rice, the organization’s assistance housing director.
“It’s really making a case and being an advocate for that individual,” she said, which includes explaining all of the support the veteran will receive while getting settled, including case management and help with employment and food.
That includes families like Artis’, who found housing through the nonprofit. She said she’s thrilled with the townhouse she moved into earlier this year, where it’s quiet and she feels safe with her 18-year-old son, who has autism.
“I lucked out. I really did,” she said. “It’s beautiful.”
Working toward zero
Mecklenburg’s goal to reduce veteran homelessness by year’s end is part of a larger collaboration with Community Solutions’ Built for Zero campaign.
The national nonprofit works with cities and counties to set goals to reach “functional zero” levels of homelessness, meaning there are fewer people experiencing homelessness that the system has the capacity to house.
That framework understands that there will continue to be people entering homelessness, but challenges cities to reach a point where new people can be rehoused quickly.
Landlords with properties of all sizes are encouraged to contact the county, which is looking to house a combination of single individuals, families and others in shared living or roommate arrangements.
That includes units that are accessible to people with disabilities and impaired mobility, which are scarce in Charlotte.
Veterans needing assistance can call the Mecklenburg County Veterans Services Office at 704-336-2102 to learn more about programs and services.
Interested landlords should email the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Continuum of Care at CharmeckCOC@MeckNC.gov.