Homelessness. Affordable housing. Economic mobility. These issues and more have been at the forefront of civic debate in Charlotte and Mecklenburg County for the past several years.
And for good reason.
In 2013, a national study from Harvard University and the University of California Berkeley ranked Charlotte-Mecklenburg 50th out of 50 metro areas for upward mobility.
In short, if you’re born poor in Mecklenburg County, odds are you’ll die poor in Mecklenburg County.
That line has become a quick talking point for politicians and bureaucrats. Easy. Short. Powerful. And it accurately reflects daily life for thousands of our neighbors.
The result of that landmark study was the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Opportunity Task Force, and in 2017 its 19-member commission released their own report, “Leading on Opportunity.” It found a wide-ranging intersection of ills and challenges facing local residents — housing instability, unemployment and underemployment, education and more.
Though the study examined several broad issues, the lack of affordable housing and homelessness in Charlotte has risen to the top of local discussion — even becoming a primary issue in recent municipal elections. Advocates say a lack of housing creates an avalanche of resulting challenges. With no stable place to live, residents find themselves in a cycle of poverty with increased chances for food insecurity and joblessness.
For people of color — primarily African-American and Latino residents — these challenges were greater. And while the “Leading on Opportunity” report didn’t examine any specific data on LGBTQ residents — data that’s often hard to come by — the report itself lends credence to the challenges social service organizations working primarily in the LGBTQ community see among their clients every day.
Organizations like Time Out Youth Center (TOY) have long known that housing challenges affect LGBTQ young people. A full year before the “Leading on Opportunity” report, TOY released its own in-depth report on the housing needs of LGBTQ youth. National studies show that anywhere between 20 and 40 percent of all homeless young people identify as LGBTQ — many also identifying as people of color and, specifically, transgender or gender-nonconforming. On a local level, upwards of 75 percent of youth encountered by local service providers identified as LGBTQ.
Data on LGBTQ adults is harder to come by. Local research often lacks specific data on LGBTQ adults and an annual count of people experiencing homelessness doesn’t accurately or effectively collect data on individuals’ sexual orientation or gender identity.
Those data collection challenges are reflected on a national level, too. Even a landmark, national report released in May by the LGBTQ Poverty Collaborative, a coalition of nearly a dozen LGBTQ and progressive groups, contained little data on the housing needs of LGBTQ adults.
While the specific data remains elusive, Debbie Warren, president and CEO of RAIN, says her organization’s daily work with clients shows a striking, unmistakable need. A whopping 98 percent of RAIN’s clients, Warren says, are facing poverty.
It’s a concern Steven Burleson, RAIN’s chaplain and care coordinator, and other case managers see on a daily basis. The question of where clients will rest their heads at night is chief among them.
“The majority of our clients who come into the office every day are facing issues with housing,” Burleson says. “That’s what we hear most as case managers.”
Programs exist in the city and county to assist low-income residents, but resources are often slim. Charlotte City Council has committed to increasing the stock of affordable housing. Recent proposals will seek to have $50 million approved for the city’s affordable housing efforts. But critics have said local leaders have not focused on those with the highest need, primarily people and families and the lowest end of the economic spectrum.
Burleson says the problem is exacerbated by a wide range of intersecting concerns.
“Whether it’s education, housing, employment, utility companies — any systems in place all require fees and deposits,” Burleson says. “These are small ways to keep people in poverty. When they add up, they are enormous barriers for our clients.”
That’s especially true for members of the community who find themselves without traditional support systems, including LGBTQ young people, people of color and HIV-positive people, Burleson says.
“They already find themselves at a disadvantage — no support systems, no resources,” he says.
Even if low-income people are working, Burleson adds, they’re often working for minimum wage — not nearly enough to provide for basic needs in a city where rent has been rapidly on the incline. In March, the average rent in Charlotte increased to nearly $1,150 a month, nearly six percent more than the year before. In 2013, the year the Harvard/Berkeley study was released, average Charlotte rents were just $842 — indicating an increase of 36 percent in just five years.
The cumulative effect of housing instability, food insecurity and underemployment can be catastrophic, Warren and Burleson say.
These “colliding set of challenges,” Burleson says, results in increased mental health challenges, greater risks for sexual assault, increased participation in survival sex work and poorer health outcomes, including increased risks for HIV transmission and other sexually transmitted infections.
“We see the emotional and mental toll that these things take on a person who is just trying to survive, just trying to get their next meal, their next place to sleep,” Burleson says. “The mental health aspect of it cannot be understated.”
The combination of poor mental health and poor physical health can also result in fatal consequences, Warren warns.
“Lacking adequate food and a low body mass index predicts a higher mortality rate for HIV-positive people over and above medication adherence,” she says.
Burleson and Warren says it’s important for government agencies and leaders to take action on solutions which can alleviate issues of poverty, housing and health for low-income LGBTQ and HIV-positive people.
Warren believes local agencies and coalitions are “on the right track.” They’ve been working together to collect more detailed data, especially on LGBTQ young people, which can be used to apply for grants and other funding mechanisms for housing and other services. Warren also points to recent moves by local health department officials to increase HIV Treatment as Prevention efforts and access to PrEP, a once-daily drug regimen for HIV-negative people that can reduce their chances of contracting HIV.
Warren and Burleson are still hopeful for opportunities to expand Medicaid — an option North Carolina lawmakers chose not to take. If it had been expanded, a greater number of low-income LGBTQ people and people living with HIV would have immediately had access to more consistent, quality health care.
There’s no magic solution to the issues of poverty, and any or all of the proposals currently being considered by government agencies could alleviate the challenges faced by LGBTQ and HIV-positive low-income people.
“There are tons of creative options to lessen the financial burdens on our clients,” Burleson says. “Being able to get to where you need to get, being able to have a place to lay your head down at night, and to be fed and to have shelter — these are rights that people should have.”