Harvest Center aims to boost homeless

By Todd Cohen

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Three Charlotte men recovering from homelessness are starting businesses that will focus on t-shirt design, landscaping and car-detailing.

Helping them incubate their new enterprises has been The Harvest Center of Charlotte, a nonprofit that serves homeless people.

The agency, which began operating in 2001 as a program of Community Outreach Christian Ministries, has fed the men, paired them with businessmen who have advised them and agreed to co-sign microloans for them, and connected them with a credit union in Durham that has made or is considering the loans.

“Homelessness is really symptomatic of other things, like broken relationships, addiction, mental-health issues, and the economy exacerbates it,” says Stephen Smith, a former banker and lawyer who has served as executive director of The Harvest Center since December 2010.

A key goal of the agency’s business-incubation program, he says, is to give clients a boost in “controlling your own destiny.”

Operating with an annual budget of $500,000, a staff of five people and hundreds of volunteers, the agency serves hot meals, distributes food and clothing, provides housing, and offers educational programs.

Last year, for example, with food purchased from and donated by Second Harvest Food Bank of Metrolina in Charlotte, The Harvest Center distributed over 1.8 million pounds of food.

And this year, it expects to serve over 112,000 hot meals to individuals and families.

The agency last year also distributed nearly 19,000 blankets and clothing items.

It provides classes on academic subjects and, in partnership with Jacob’s Ladder Job Center, it offers classes on topics such as how to write a resume or handle a job interview.

Through a partnership with Dove’s Nest, the women’s shelter of the Charlotte Rescue Mission, the agency offers counseling and an addiction-recovery program for women.

And in a partnership with Southeast Psychology, a mental-health counseling firm in South Park, The Harvest Center offers counseling to a handful of individual clients, as well as classes and lectures for about 300 people who visit the center for hot meals.

The agency also is talking with the Men’s Shelter of Charlotte, located about a mile away, about how to collaborate or coordinate their programs to avoid duplication and provide more efficient services for homeless people.

The Harvest Center also provides housing to roughly two families of women and children a year in a four-bedroom house it owns, and to four individuals and a married couple in two other houses owned by a donor who lets the agency use them for clients.

The Harvest Center counts entirely on contributions from individuals, corporations and churches, and the economy has hurt its funding, which fell 18 percent in 2009, the year after the capital markets collapsed.

To boost contributions, the agency will hold two fundraising events this year.

On May 10, for the first time, The Harvest Center’s annual fashion show featuring its clients and volunteers, also will aim to raise money, with a goal of $40,000.

“It’s less about the clothes and more about the transformation of the models,” Smith says.

And late this year, The Harvest Center will host a luncheon at Myers Park Methodist Church that aims to raise $150,000.

Smith says the agency’s Christian focus is integral to its work in helping homeless people get their feet back on the ground.

“That’s an integral part of the transformation,” he says, “loving your neighbor, feeding your neighbor, knowing who your neighbor is.”

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