N&O Shines a Spotlight on Homelessness in Raleigh

From a recent News & Observer story...

At a time when our city council is making it as difficult as possible to build new housing, infill development and "missing middle" housing through the imposition of stricter land use and zoning regulations, it's important to remember that bad policy and NIMBYism have a negative effect on actual people. This story of Vanezza Bates and her daughter really hit home about the importance of creating opportunity for all in Raleigh. That starts with a safe and affordable place to live.

Vanezza Bates had been sleeping in her car, knowing it wouldn’t be repossessed if she was inside. She’d fallen a couple months behind on payments, and she didn’t have a home to go to anyway.

But one night, her grandmother said Bates’ 11-year-old daughter, J’Mayh, couldn’t stay with her unless Bates stayed, too. She got up the next morning and discovered her silver 2005 Hyundai Elantra was gone, just as she’d feared.

Homeless and now without a car, Bates and her daughter have continued drifting between the homes of friends and family. While J’Mayh is at school, Bates tries to find work through a temp agency, but she can’t seem to scrape enough cash together to rent an apartment. ...

Bates’ struggle to create a better life for her family isn’t uncommon. Homelessness in Wake County increased in 2017, although it declined in North Carolina overall. The Wake numbers, counted during a single night last January, increased about 8 percent to 884 people.

Other measures are even more striking: The number of people who came in contact with homelessness services in Wake County at least once in a given year has increased 31 percent since 2015, reaching 5,500 last year, according to the Raleigh/Wake Partnership to End and Prevent Homelessness.

In the Wake school system, 3,465 students were considered homeless during the 2016-17 school year, up from 2,940 the year before. That’s more than twice as large as any single-year increase since 2009.

These trends might run counter to Raleigh’s image as a thriving metropolitan area with plenty of businesses and job opportunities. The unemployment rate, not seasonally adjusted, in Wake County was 3.8 percent in November, the most recent month for which data is available. That was below the statewide jobless rate of 4.5 percent.

But in Wake, the poorest residents have not shared in much of the success. The lowest 10 percent of earners in North Carolina have seen their average wages diminish 2.6 percent over the past decade, according to a December report by the left-leaning N.C. Justice Center.

Meanwhile, top earners – those in the 90th percentile – have enjoyed the biggest wage increases since 2007. Their hourly wage has increased by about $5, the report says.

“Strong growth is great as long as your wages are growing,” said Patrick McHugh, one of the report’s authors. “But if you’re in poverty in one of the economically prosperous parts of the state, you could be actually falling even further behind compared to someone who’s struggling elsewhere.”

That’s largely because of the rising cost of rent and the decline of affordable housing, experts say. An average apartment in Raleigh rents for more than $900 a month, while an average earner can afford to pay about $750, according to the N.C. Housing Coalition. ...

Consultants hired by Wake commissioners say the county is losing between 400 and 550 affordable housing units every year. Raleigh’s supply of public housing has shrunk from roughly 2,000 units in 1998 to about 1,450 today, according to the Raleigh Housing Authority.

With federal programs stagnating and housing costs rising, Raleigh and Wake County are being pushed to attack extreme poverty more actively and creatively than they have in the past.

“The housing authorities, their federal funding is decreasing, if anything,” said Mary Jean Seyda, acting chief executive of CASA, a housing nonprofit in the Triangle. “It is not keeping pace at all with the increase in the need. They’re going in opposite directions.”

Raleigh leaders agreed in 2016 to raise the property tax rate by 1 cent to generate about $5.7 million a year for affordable housing. The city is providing $8.6 million toward a nonprofit housing group’s revamp of Washington Terrace, an affordable-housing complex in Southeast Raleigh. Nearby in East College Park, Raleigh is overseeing the conversion of a public housing project into a mixed-income development. ...

But Bates is skeptical that such projects will help her. Families with a steady income, even if it’s not much money, would surely benefit. But she doesn’t have any savings, and without a car, finding steady work will be harder than ever.

“A lot of the affordable housing conversation does gear toward people with higher incomes because it’s easier to do,” said Terry Allebaugh, community impact coordinator with the North Carolina Coalition to End Homelessness. “None of it’s easy, but it’s easier relatively.

“Our discussions of affordable housing should really be focused on people with lower incomes, people moving out of homelessness,” he said. “If you’re not careful, you’ll spend all your time and energy focusing on people who are doing better, and you’ll neglect people who are in a worse situation.”

The city and county have contributed a combined $7 million toward a permanent site for the Oak City Outreach Center on South Wilmington Street, which is set to open in about a year. An intake and assessment process will evaluate each person’s needs from legal, housing and health perspectives. The center will also offer people a chance to take showers, do laundry and eat meals.

In the meantime, nonprofits are picking up some of the slack, but they are also stretched thin. CASA has a waiting list of about 2,000 people, while it owns and operates about 500 homes. ...
— Henry Gargan - N&O
Brent Woodcox