CASA turns to community to serve homeless

By Todd Cohen

RALEIGH, N.C. — Growing up in Duplin County in rural eastern North Carolina, Debra King learned about the “interdependency of people in a small farming community.”

For the past 19 years, King has tried to put that lesson to work as CEO of CASA, a Raleigh-based nonprofit that develops and manages over 300 units of affordable housing at 37 properties in Wake, Durham and Orange counties for people with disabilities or who are homeless, many of them veterans.

Formed in 1992 by the Wake County Area Mental Health Program, an agency that worked to ensure that indigent people received proper care for mental health, substance abuse and developmental disabilities, CASA now operates with an annual budget of $3 million and staff of 26 people.

Its staff includes 10 part-time employees who are residents of its housing and serve as the landscaping crew for its properties.

The agency has a separate budget of roughly $2.5 million a year, mostly from public funding, to develop new housing.

This year, it is developing 10 single-bedroom units on Sunnybrook Road in Raleigh, where it already has 10 units.

It also has begun construction on 11 single-bedroom units at the intersection of Sedgefield and Guess roads near Northgate Mall in Durham in the first phase of a complex that will house homeless veterans and include indoor community space, a laundry room and outside sitting area.

The Durham complex will be named for Alexander B. Denson, a retired magistrate judge from the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina.

Denson, who in the 1990s served as the third chair of CASA’s board of directors, helped spearhead efforts to develop a shelter in downtown Raleigh that could house homeless people on cold nights.

The Denson Apartments for Veterans will cost $1.4 million, most of it public funding but also including $75,000 from the Home Depot Foundation because it will house veterans, and $46,500  from a foundation that wishes to remain anonymous and supports “green,” or environmentally-friendly buildings.

CASA also is seeking $27,000 in private donations to cover landscaping costs, as well as furniture and equipment for the community room.

Missy Hatley, former director of annual fund and communications at Habitat for Humanity of Wake County, joined CASA in January as its first full-time director of development, and has a goal of raising $85,000 in the fiscal year that ends June 30.

In November and December, CASA held its first fundraising appeal to individuals, and plans another in April.

With a waiting list of over 500 people, King says, CASA aims to engage individual donors in helping to make sure homeless people have a safe place they can call home.

“If we could replicate that in our more urban environments, that sense of community and responsibility for one another,” King says of the interdependence among people she saw as a child raised on a farm, “we’d solve so many of our issues.”

Cooperation key in fighting homelessness

By Todd Cohen

[Note: This was written for Triangle Community Foundation. I am working with the Foundation as senior communications adviser.]

DURHAM, N.C. — Collaboration as a preferred strategy for making an impact on community problems is the focus of growing conversation in the charitable world, although turning that aspiration to cooperate into a working reality can be daunting.

To see a model for how to build a community-wide partnership that is supported by public and private investors and addresses an urgent local need, consider the effort to fight homelessness in Durham.

Housing for New Hope, the lead partner in that effort, was founded in 1992 to prevent and end homelessness in the community.

Public-private partnerships

Starting in 1992, when it received its first federal grant, a core strategy at Housing for New Hope has been to team with public and private partners and funders.

Reinforcing that strategy was $1 million in federal stimulus funding in 2010 that helped inspire the agency to form a partnership with Urban Ministries of Durham, Genesis Home, and the Durham Interfaith Hospitality Network.

That partnership reflected a policy at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that has encouraged community cooperation to address homelessness.

With that funding, the partnership has served 173 households through its collaborative “rapid rehousing” program that aims to help households free themselves from poverty.

The program provides or connects homeless people to permanent housing, and to support services they can use to find the stability they need to keep that housing.

Local funding

Those federal dollars now are gone, however. So, to generate support to continue and improve the program, the four agencies together approached local foundations and government.

That collective fundraising effort yielded a total of $450,000 in investment from the A.J. Fletcher Foundation and Stewards Fund, both in Raleigh, and from the City of Durham.

With those funds, the collaboration plans to serve at least 80 households over the next year.

Terry Allebaugh, who has served as executive director of Housing for New Hope since it was founded and has spearheaded the collaborative effort to fight homelessness, says private-public investment opens the door to greater flexibility than federal funding allows.

Innovative strategies

The Durham collaboration has sprouted a range of innovative strategies to help homeless people find their way to financial stability.

Each of the 80 households, for example, will get 50 pounds of food to get started, courtesy of the Food Bank of Eastern and Central North Carolina and the InterFaith Food Shuttle, both based in Raleigh.

Each household will receive a houseful of furnishings for only $288, thanks to The Green Chair Project in Raleigh, as well as a housewarming basket stocked with cleaning supplies and other household items by a group of Durham congregations and civic groups.

The households also will receive training and services to prepare them for the world of work and help place them in jobs through Durham Technical Community College and the Office of Economic and Workforce Development for the City of Durham.

That work-readiness and training program will include classes hosted at Urban Ministries for its clients and those of Genesis Home and Durham Interfaith Hospitality Network.

Some families in the rapid rehousing program will be connected for a year to “Circle of Support” teams of five to seven volunteers recruited by Genesis Home who will provide a range of services, from tutoring and mentoring children and connecting families to employment opportunities and recreational activities to simply listening to family members.

And volunteers from congregations and businesses will be working to help move families into their new homes. Those volunteers, in turn, may want to suggest that their own congregations and businesses provide additional teams on an ongoing basis, widening the concentric circles of neighbors helping neighbors.

Local engagement

A big lesson from the Durham strategy to fight homelessness is that solving complex community problems is a job that increasingly will require creative solutions that engage public and private players, including services providers and investors.

With the serious problems our region faces, all of us should in the Triangle should be talking to one another and looking for ways to build those kinds of cooperative strategies, and to make them work.

Community solutions to homelessness urged

By Todd Cohen

[Note: I am working with Triangle Community Foundation as senior communications adviser.]

MORRISVILLE, N.C. — While homelessness can seem beyond any solution, efforts to reduce it are working.

Actually ending homelessness, however, will take truly collaborative community efforts that require patience and hard work, and are well designed, driven by incentives and shared goals, and tracked with useful metrics that show the impact of those efforts.

That was the message of four experts who work on homelessness issues and served on a panel at the April meeting of the Triangle Donors Forum.

Hosted by Triangle Community Foundation and United Way of the Greater Triangle at United Way’s offices in Morrisville, the Forum offered a window into local efforts to fight homelessness by adapting to changes in the funding environment and in perspectives about the causes of the problem and effective strategies to address it.

Roots of homelessness

Characterizing homelessness as “one of the most complex societal problems,” Denise Neunaber, executive director of the North Carolina Coalition to End Homelessness, told the Donors Forum the keys to ending the problem all are rooted in access — to affordable housing, to services and to income.

In the early 1980s, she said, homelessness was treated as an “emergency situation”  and a problem that eventually would “go away.”

Declines in the development of affordable housing and in wages, however, along with changes in the mental health system and other social forces, have resulted in the spread of homelessness, she said.

Yet the system created to fight homelessness, rooted in the belief it was a temporary crisis, has “taken on a life of its own,” she said.

Shifting strategies

The system that emerged to serve homeless people operated below the “safety net” to “catch people when the safety net doesn’t work,” Neunaber said.

But that system became a kind of “sticky net.”

“We created a system where you need to get services while you’re there,” she said, creating few exits for people in temporary housing who needed ongoing assistance.

But that system should be a “trampoline,” she said, to stabilize their housing while they get other support, including assistance with rent and in securing jobs or disability benefits, or services such as mental health programs or case management.

“People fall out of housing into our system and we try to bounce them back into housing and services,” she said.

Ultimately, she said, getting people out of homelessness requires permanent housing.

“Instead of investing just in services and a temporary place for individuals and families to stay,” she said, “we’re taking it to the next level, investing in housing, in rental assistance and security deposits, to see how quickly we can get people out of the system.”

Homelessness and poverty

Perceptions about what it means to be homeless also have changed, Neunaber said.

For many years, advocates equated fighting homelessness with fighting poverty, believing they had to address the poverty of homeless individuals and families by helping them “get better jobs and make better decisions, ” she said, “and make them better people.”

But over the years, advocates have recognized that “maybe ending homelessness is not the same as ending poverty,” she said. “Maybe ending homelessness is a piece of getting to the next step of ending poverty. We may not be able to end poverty for these individuals and families, but I know we can end  homelessness.”

Neunaber said local partnerships to end homelessness had helped reduce the number of chronically homeless individuals and families in communities across North Carolina, including a declines of 35 percent in Durham, 58 percent in Winston-Salem and and 82 percent in Buncombe County.

‘Rapid Rehousing’

Strategies for serving the homeless more recently have evolved to a “Housing First” model that includes a “Rapid Rehousing” approach focusing on first getting homeless people housed and then providing the services they need to get back on their feet and build stable lives.

“It shortens the time they’re homeless,” Terry Allebaugh, executive director of Housing for New Hope in Durham, told the Donors Forum.

Beth Bordeaux, executive director of PLM Families Together in Raleigh, told the Donors Forum that the Rapid Rehousing strategy also provides an incentive for families not to prolong their stays in emergency housing but rather to begin to prepare themselves to move into longer-term housing.

“First we get them stable,” she said. “If your life is in chaos, the first thing you want is to reduce your stress.”

Allebaugh and Bordeaux both said Rapid Rehousing has helped their agencies house more people for less money.

Last year, for example, PLM Families Together moved 57 families into permanent housing, and this year expects to move 70 families into permanent housing.

And in partnership with three core agencies that provide support services and temporary housing , Housing for New Hope housed 173 households in permanent housing over the two-and-a-half-year period ended August 2012, with 89 percent of those households remaining housed.

Community solutions

Advocates at the Donors Forum said the most effective approaches to fighting homelessness involve community-based partnerships that address the problem from the perspective of the systems that serve homeless people.

Those systems range from job-training and financial-literacy services to those serving people with mental illness or substance abuse problems, or both, and people after they are discharged from military service or prison.

“You can’t end homelessness in a silo,” Bordeaux said.

Bernadette Pelissier, a member of the Orange County Board of Commissioners and of the Orange County Partnership to End Homelessness, told the Donors Forum that homelessness is a byproduct of national policies on a range of issues such as poverty and mental health, and that efforts to address homelessness are supported by multiple funding streams.

So partnerships to fight homelessness should approach the problem from a “systems” perspective.

In Orange County, she said, that approach has produced promising partnerships.

The local Partnership to End Homelessness, for example, has enlisted partners such as an assistant district attorney whose efforts helped establish a local “outreach court.”

That court, which has engaged students at the School of Law at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, along with other partners, encouraged homeless people who have been arrested for misdemeanors to take advantage of local services, particularly mental health services.

And a local jobs program works to encourage local businesses to hire people released from prison who may be at risk of homelessness. That effort represents a collaboration between local partners such as the Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership and Chamber of Commerce, and is administered by a new nonprofit led by students at UNC-Chapel Hill.

“We’re engaging the community,” Pelissier said, “not just providers” of services.

Critical to local collaborative programs, she said, is the ability to track and measure their impact.

Focus on collaboration

The session underscored the growing focus of Triangle Community Foundation and United Way to work more collaboratively to address urgent needs in the region.

“We have to do it together, think collaboratively,” Lori O’Keefe, president of Triangle Community Foundation, told the Donors Forum. “We don’t have to be the experts. We look for resources and partners.”

Mack Koonce, president and CEO of United Way, told the Donors Forum that collaborative thinking “is important to all our social issues.”

United Way, he said, is “going to work closely with other foundations and individuals to work collaboratively on the donor side and on the service delivery side.”

He said United Way plans to raise “designated dollars to do the next systemic change” in the area of financial stability for families, an effort he said would “keep this going” through “collaboration, the use of data, and scaling what works.”

Habitat a ministry for real-estate veteran

By Todd Cohen

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Six months ago, Frank Spencer was sitting at his desk, translating Hebrew Scripture, when he received a call, literally and figuratively.

A recruiter had phoned to ask Spencer, retired CEO of Cogdell Spencer, a publicly-traded health-care real-estate investment trust, about taking the top job at Habitat for Humanity of Charlotte.

Spencer, who had spent most of his career in the real-estate business and in May 2011 enrolled in the master of divinity program at Union Presbyterian Seminary, interpreted the phone call as a spiritual calling as well as a professional one.

“I view this really as a ministry, not simply as a housing enterprise,” says Spencer, who joined Habitat in May, succeeding long-time CEO Bert Green, who has taken on the newly created role of director of strategic initiatives.

Formed in 1983, Habitat Charlotte has served 1,149 families with affordable housing, including 936 new homes it has built, 101 homes it has refurbished, and 112 critical repair projects it has handled.

Habitat provides families with “decent, safe and affordable housing,” says Spencer, whose career has focused on finance, real estate and construction.

The agency also serves as a ministry to its 12,000 volunteers, as well as other agencies, the city of Charlotte, the community, and its employees, all part of a larger effort to stabilize housing, Spencer says.

Habitat buys foreclosed houses, rehabilitates them and sells them in an effort to help stabilize neighborhoods, and it provides critical home repairs for homes, mainly owned by elderly families in financial need.

Now, it aims to develop more partnerships and serve as a more public advocate for affordable housing.

It is part of a larger effort in Reid Park to define neighborhood goals, has teamed with the Green Building Council so every house it builds will be LEED certified, and is partnering with Goodwill Industries of the Southern Piedmont to provide job training for Goodwill clients.

And as an advocate, it aims to be “part of a broader solution” by providing a “leadership voice” on affordable housing options, Spencer says.

Operating with annual budget of $14 million, Habitat is self-sufficient, he says, with a $2 million operating margin that is recycled into housing.

The agency also raises $3 million, all of it used to create new housing.

Still, Spencer says, “we have to find more financial resources.”

The strategic initiatives Green oversees include developing partnerships among the eight Habitat affiliates in the region that have saved nearly $100,000 through joint servicing of mortgages, shared purchasing builders risk and liability insurance, joint grant proposals, and shared purchasing of construction materials.

Spencer, who started his career working for John Crosland at The Crosland Group, now works in the John Crosland Center for Housing, named for his former boss, who was the founding chairman of Habitat Charlotte and remains a mentor to Spencer.

“I’ve now come full circle,”  he says. “I couldn’t have conceived of a better fit.”

Babcock Foundation names new executive director

By Todd Cohen

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — David Jackson, a 25-year veteran of government, philanthropy and nonprofits who has focused on affordable housing and on workforce and economic development, has been named executive director of the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation in Winston-Salem.

Jackson, who is president and CEO of the Center for Working Families in Atlanta, will begin his new job in November, succeeding Gayle Williams, who has led the $154.5 million-asset foundation for 19 years.

Kathy Mountcastle, chair of the foundation’s board, said in an email message to colleagues that the organization’s senior staff would remain, “ensuring continuity in our approach and grantmaking.”

Under Williams, the focus of the Babcock Foundation has been helping to move people and places in the Southeast out of poverty.

For the next two years, the foundation will be completing a 10-year strategic plan, and then embarking on a new strategic plan that will be informed by its current work, Jackson says.

Jackson, who has a special interest in creating business-ownership opportunities for residents of underserved communities, says his work has taught him that “change is most sustainable when people who want to change participate and lead in making it happen.”

Change also results from “learning and listening and doing it through collaboration,” he says.

Both the Babcock Foundation and the Center for Working Families are rooted in working in partnership with other organizations to improve the lives of people and places in need, he says.

A native of New York City who grew up in Harlem and the South Bronx, Jackson says he saw a lot of abandoned buildings as a child and told his mother, when she asked him what he wanted to be when grew up, that he “wanted to be the guy who builds buildings.”

He studied architecture at the High School of Art and Design, and received a bachelor of science degree in architecture from the New York Institute of Technology, then went to work for the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development, where his first assignment was helping tenants take over the management of apartment buildings by turning them into limited equity cooperatives.

He later worked as associate director of the Atlanta office for the Enterprise Foundation, one of the largest financiers and developers of affordable housing in the U.S., and then returned to the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development as assistant commissioner of homeownership.

Before joining The Center for Working Families, he served as vice president of One Economy Corporation, a global nonprofit that works to use technology and information to help plug low-income communities into the economy.

He led One Economy’s expansion into new markets, including Atlanta, San Antonio, New Orleans and Kansas City.

Operating with an annual budget of $4 million and a staff of 30 people, the Center for Working Families serves about 1,200 people a  year, providing intervention services such as connections to support services for roughly half of them, and deeper services such as job coaching and financial coaching for the other half.

Jackson, who holds a master’s degree in business administration  from the Robinson College of Business at Georgia State University, says he learned in business school that “if someone does it better, don’t try to do it yourself, just buy it or partner to get it.”

The Babcock Foundation “works with communities and nonprofits that don’t have unlimited resources,” he says.

“At the Center for Working Families, I sometimes tried to think of our work like an auto plant that assembles cars from parts such as windshields and seats manufactured by other companies, working with them to serve the ‘end-user,’” he says. “We were more effective by working together with other nonprofits to serve our constituents.”

In the case of low-income families and neighborhoods that are “disconnected,” for example, nonprofits can partner with one another to connect families “to the resources they need to achieve the goals they’re setting out for,” Jackson says.

And working with constituents is key to effective collaboration, he says.

“I’ve always found that when people who are wanting a change help design and implement that change, outcomes remain sticky, it lasts longer,” Jackson says. “When it’s a top-down approach, it might work for a little while, but eventually it’s not sustainable.”

Community Link focuses on homeless

By Todd Cohen

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — What was launched in 1929 as a local Travelers Aid Society helping stranded travelers find housing now operates as Community Link, an agency with an annual budget of $3.8 million that helps just over 1,200 families a year get into rental housing or become homeowners for the first time.

And with the consolidation earlier this year of programs from Community Link and two other agencies that focused on providing homeowner education and counseling for first-time homebuyers and homeowners struggling to keep their homes, the organization has taken on that piece of those agencies’ work.

With 34 employees, Community Link focuses on helping homeless people in a six-county region get into housing.

Its mission is to “enable individuals and families to obtain and sustain safe, decent and affordable housing, says Floyd R. Davis Jr., president and CEO.

In the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2011, for example, Community Link helped 816 families moved into rental housing, while helping 252 families become first-time homeowners.

It also helped 600 individuals find housing elsewhere in the U.S. after their attempt to live in Charlotte did not work out and they wanted to return to communities where they had support systems, a program that dates to the agency’s roots as a local Travelers Aid Society.

Community Link’s work with first-time homebuyers began in 2004, when it merged with Ugamma, a smaller agency that focused on home-ownership education and counseling.

That program, which now has been consolidated with similar efforts that had been housed at United Family Services and the Latin American Coalition, has faced rising demand for services as a result of the crippled economy, Davis says.

“Given the economic situation of the last few years, we see a growing number of people are facing difficulty in obtaining and sustaining housing,” he says, mainly because people have lost employment or cannot find jobs.

And people who lost jobs with higher pay are taking jobs with lower pay that otherwise might have been available to people with low-to-moderate incomes, making it tougher for them to find work, he says.

The program at United Family Services that provided housing counseling had served roughly 1,800 people a year, while the program at the Latin American Coalition had served about 400 people a year.

Community Link has hired the housing counselor who worked on that program at the Latin American Coalition, filling a vacant position.

And it has taken on a total of $516,000 in contracts United Family Services had with the city of Charlotte and with the N.C. Housing Finance Agency to operate its program.

Davis says he anticipates Community Link will expand its work assisting homeowners who are facing foreclosure as a result of the damaged economy.

The agency will seek funds to pay for that expansion from dollars the state will receive from a big settlement that attorneys general from a number of states made in lawsuit they filed against financial institutions for the way they had been handling foreclosures, Davis says.

Community Link also launched a new fundraising event in May, a “Sweet Escape” chocolate party, that it estimated would raise $10,000 to $15,000, an event it hopes to hold on an annual basis.

As part of its work, Community Link works to help clients repair their credit, cope with their budgeting, and address problems such as substance abuse and other mental-health issues that may keep them from finding housing.

“We help people deal with the barriers that have prevented them from obtaining rental housing or becoming homeowners,” Davis says.

Affordable-housing group seeks partners

By Todd Cohen

RALEIGH, N.C. — At the nine communities for seniors that DHIC has developed in Wake County, Resources for Seniors coordinates a range of services.

Those include health and education programs, assistance with transportation, screening for high blood pressure and diabetes, flu-shot clinics, and tips on nutrition and healthy cooking.

While it dates to 1994, the partnership with Resources for Seniors reflects a strategy DHIC will be pursuing more aggressively as it looks for ways to better serve people who live in affordable housing.

“Our goal is to explore new partnerships that allow us to make full and better use of local services that are already being provided by other agencies, and then to match those services with the needs of our residents” says Yvette Holmes, who joined the nonprofit agency in January as its first director of community partnerships and development after serving for 18 years as campaign director at the United Arts Council of Raleigh and Wake County.

Formed in 1974 as the Downtown Housing Improvement Corporation, DHIC has developed and owns 1,600 housing units at 32 sites, most of them in Wake County.

The agency operates with a $1.5 million annual budget and a staff of 13 employees, and serves roughly 3,000 individuals and families a year, most of them renting housing, with about 300 families that participated in home-buyer workshops.

Revenue includes over $100,000 in core operating support from the City of Raleigh; $130,000 to $140,000 a year in core operating support from NeighborWorks America, a group chartered by Congress to spur affordable housing and community development; $100,000 from foundations and banks; and $250,000 in apartment rent income.

The balance consists of fee income paid to DHIC by its equity investors when it completes development of projects.

DHIC sells tax credits to its investment partners, reducing their tax liability in return for equity that reduces the mortgage loans the agency must borrow and thus the rents its tenants pay.

According to county planners, Wake needs 25,000 units of affordable housing, defined as housing that does not consume more than 30 percent of household income for a family of four, says Gregg Warren, president and executive director of DHIC.

A key challenge in developing affordable housing, he says, is finding available land, a challenge DHIC is addressing through partnerships with developers like Craig Davis Properties, which was involved in the sale of commercial real estate for Wakefield Plantation.

Through that partnership, DHIC developed two separate developments at Wakefield, including 80 apartments for families and 96 apartments for seniors.

And with the aging of the Baby Boomer generation, or those born from 1946 through 1964, demand for affordable seniors housing is surging, Warren says.

In addition to seniors and low-wage workers, the population DHIC serves includes single men and women in recovery from addiction, as well as single parents and people who work downtown in local businesses, such as restaurants, nonprofits and arts groups.

“There’s a real need for a range of housing opportunities in downtown Raleigh,” Warren says.

In her new job, Holmes aims to identify funding sources to support direct services to residents of DHIC properties, and to develop partnerships with other agencies to help provide those services.

DHIC also continues to look for real-estate opportunities.

“That means land that is affordable, close to schools, transit, community services, grocery stores,” Warren says.

DHIC developments are “well-designed, well-constructed, well-managed, and can be an asset to any neighborhood in Wake County and the Triangle,” he says.

And they boost the economy: In 2009, 2010 and 2011, DHIC construction projects created about 220 jobs, plus another 54 ongoing jobs, he says.

And in 2011, DHIC paid $344,000 in Wake County taxes.

“We’re creating jobs,” Warren says.