Latin American Coalition grows to meet demand

By Todd Cohen

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — In 2011, a group of six high school students from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools interrupted a speech by President Obama at the annual conference of the National Council of La Raza, the leading Hispanic civil rights and advocacy group in the U.S.

The students, volunteers with the Charlotte-based Latin American Coalition, were protesting the deportation and the resulting separation of immigrant families.

In June, Obama announced federal action to grant temporary status for some undocumented young immigrants, effective August 15.

“The new deferral is a step in the right direction for a permanent solution,” says Jess George, executive director of the Latino American Coalition.

Formed in 1990 to provide direct services to Latinos, the Coalition has grown dramatically, expanding the services it provides to meet rising demand, and also emerging in recent years as a leading statewide advocate for Latinos.

Operating with an annual budget of $1.1 million and a staff of 17 people, the Coalition provides direct serves to 8,000 people a year through its Immigrant Welcome Center, an effort launched in 2011 that provides crisis and support services for immigrant families, regardless of their documentation status.

In August, recognizing the work it does through the Welcome Center, the National Council of La Raza honored the Coalition with its 2012 Family Strengthening Award.

Creation of the Center reflected a strategy at the Coalition to integrate the direct services it provides to Latinos, George says.

Charlotte’s Latino population, currently 150,000, has grown at least 1,500 percent in the two decades since the Coalition was formed, she says.

And in the eight years since she joined the Coalition, she says, its budget and staff have more than quadrupled.

The Coalition’s one-year-old Immigrant Welcome Center includes a crisis intervention network that represents formal partnerships with a broad range of crisis agencies such as Loaves and Fishes, and Crisis Assistance Ministry.

The Center handles the intake of families that need food, clothing and rental assistance, and then connects them with the agencies that can provide the services they need.

The Center also provides a desk once a week in the Coalition’s lobby for the Charlotte Mecklenburg Department of Social Services, which schedules appointments there for anyone eligible for any social service benefits.

The Center also provides a victims assistance program that serves mainly victims of domestic violence, of wage theft by employers who deny payment to immigrant workers, of consumer fraud and identity theft, and of human trafficking and hate crimes.

And it provides a neighbor-to-neighbor resource center, staffed by volunteers, that includes computers, phone books and maps that clients can use to learn more about the community and services that are available.

The work of the center is closely tied to two other Coalition programs, including support services for workers, and an immigration law clinic.

In addition to direct services, the Coalition has lobbied actively in the state legislature, helping to stop 19 of 20 pieces of legislation in 2011 that were “explicitly anti-immigrant,” George says.

It also employs a full-time electoral organizer and a full-time youth organizer, and is working this year to register 5,000 new Latino voters in the state.

And it held its annual Latin American Festival in October.

The Coalition, George says, is working to meet “the most critical and urgent challenges of immigrant integration in North Carolina.”

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.