Stepping Stones: From Shelter to Independence

June 8, 2020

For men whose path out of homelessness is employment, the COVID-19 pandemic brought a little bit of luck. According to Roman philosopher Seneca, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”

In the past, the Tryon Street and Statesville Avenue men’s shelters responded to high demand by increasing capacity, beds close together and mats on the floors.  Warm and dry indoors was the goal for making people safe. The pandemic showed that a new way of thinking is needed for providing safe and healthy shelter. From the first whispers of the contagious nature of the coronavirus, leadership in the organization began looking beyond what we’d been doing to anything new we could try. And leadership thought BIG.

Unused dormitories in Charlotte became available through December 31 – how could they be repurposed? Simple, old-school style rooms with shared hall bathrooms and shared kitchen facilities are a safe alternative to congregate shelters, but how to best use the space considering staffing and services? CEO Liz Clasen-Kelly and several community partners re-imagined a path out of homelessness for men who are working and ready to leave the shelter but haven’t yet secured housing. Everything fell into place.

Preparation (leadership) meets opportunity (community partner support)

Staff members Stephanie Shatto (Chief Program Officer of Homeless Services) and Joe Hamby (Director of Income Services) supervise the new program. Stephanie is excited, explaining, “This is a stepping stone for guests from shelter living where everything is provided to being responsible for their own food, maintaining their own space, and learning to be a good neighbor.” Programming also includes case managers for a low staff-to-guest ratio, financial literacy classes and volunteer service projects for guests in the Charlotte community.

What Stephanie especially wants us all to know is that this also provides a different type of experience for the men from the shelter. “It allows space for quiet when you want, privacy for phone calls when you want, and a community to engage in when you want.”

Preparation (staff support) meets opportunity (independence)

As Stephanie brings her calm, Joe brings his fire to this endeavor. With enthusiasm in his voice, his eyes, and his quick step, Joe shared his vision with staff on a tour of the dorms. “Socrates said, ‘The unexamined life is not worth living,’ and we want the men to have this opportunity for growth time, a season of reflection, examination and preparation. We’ll promote an attitude of commitment to moving forward, we’re in it to win it, we’re not looking back!” Each morning Joe will create and distribute a one-page “Daily Boost” under each room door, filled with information and inspiration for the day.

Preparation (guest commitment) meets opportunity (personal growth)

From idea to execution, the dormitory solution has moved more quickly than just about any program in the organization’s history, and change can be a little scary at any pace. Still, Stephanie says, “There’s a buzz in the shelter. The men are excited to see us innovate. Even during COVID-19, we are still moving forward and creating paths out of homelessness.”

“Guests enter the program with the full understanding that it is short term and they will work with case managers from Day 1 to connect to housing resources.” “Albert,” who has been at the Tryon shelter for 1-1/2 years, always employed, has been disappointed with housing opportunities falling through, and “this is giving him a new burst of energy and excitement that things are possible, a fresh start in the housing market.”

In a few short and focused weeks, amazing corporate partners, congregations and volunteers generously stepped forward. With their financial support, donated furnishings, high speed internet and paint, they transformed the dorms so 70 men can work toward transformed lives.

On the first move-in day, one guest entered the building with a smile and five garbage bags containing his belongings. Another guest checked out the nearby park and was excited to let everyone know, “There’s a grill in the park! I can’t wait to grill out!”

Preparation (grilling skills) meets opportunity (and joy!)