"There is only one Liz Clasen-Kelly. Her voice is one of knowledge, love, courage to do hard things and an unwavering belief that we can end homelessness. She makes us all believe; and that's exactly what it will take."
~Lou Solomon, Interact Studio
This was always going to be a big year for Liz Clasen-Kelly.
As chief executive officer of Roof Above, an organization working to end homelessness in Charlotte, she knew that on Jan. 1.
Developing creative and innovative initiatives to offer immediate housing and, ultimately, permanent housing for the members of the homeless community is a challenge in a good year.
Add to that combining the missions and staffs of two time-honored nonprofits — Urban Ministry Center and Men’s Shelter of Charlotte. The organizations decided to merge in 2019, but — while just a few minutes apart geographically — there was still work to do bringing their operations and cultures together.
And, then, COVID-19 hit.
“The pandemic has been a gut check for our community on the reality of homelessness. The large encampment by our Day Services Center has made visible a reality that has been hidden to many,” says Clasen-Kelly.
“[S]ocial distancing is so much more difficult when you do not have your own housing,” she continues. “While I think homelessness has always been a health crisis, the pandemic has allowed us to see much more clearly how someone’s health is connected to their housing stability.”
CREATIVE WAYS TO END HOMELESSNESS
Last week, Roof Above announced its $4.5 million purchase of a 88-room hotel on Clanton Road, fueled by $2 million in CARES Act funding allocated from the city of Charlotte and private donations. They plan to use the facility as emergency housing immediately and convert the rooms into studio apartments by the end of 2021.
Earlier this fall, Roof Above led the effort to purchase a 341-room apartment complex in east Charlotte, also for alternative housing and service space for Charlotte homeless.
While Clasen-Kelly says the pandemic hasn’t created a significant swell in the actual size of Charlotte’s homeless community, it has created urgency to find new ways to solve a long-term challenge. And, it’s brought into sharp focus that stable, affordable housing is a great equalizer.
“Our neighbors in homelessness are providing an opportunity for everyone to ‘look around and see,’ and then decide how we will respond as a community and as individuals,” she said.
BEING SEEN FOR SEEING OTHERS
For her efforts with Roof Above, Clasen-Kelly was recognized last week with the 2020 Community Voice Award from Interact Studio. She is the second recipient of this award, which is given to Charlotte leaders and organizations “whose authentic voice creates positive change in the Charlotte community.” Last year, the inaugural award was given to former Chief of Police Kerr Putney.
Lou Solomon, founder of Interact Studios, said of Clasen-Kelly, “Her voice is one of knowledge, love, courage to do hard things and an unwavering belief that we can end homelessness. She makes us all believe; and that’s exactly what it will take.”
The Community Voice Award was designed by artist Elijah Kell. A photo and description are at the bottom of this article.
3 biggest challenges
“I always hope that people hear from Roof Above that homelessness is a solvable issue,” said Clasen-Kelly.
Roof Above is known for finding innovative ways to rise above challenges, but the end of 2020 and beginning of 2021 don’t look like they’ll offer Clasen-Kelly and her team much opportunity to catch their collective breath.
For insight into what Roof Above is focused on now, we asked Clasen-Kelly to share the three biggest challenges.
“Housing is the solution to homelessness, but affordable housing is disappearing from our community. Older apartments are flipped into higher-rent properties or torn down and replaced with luxury products.”
“In 2010, 51% of all apartments rented for less than $800, and that dropped to 25% in 2018. We must find ways to protect the affordable housing that exists and to create additional affordability.”
“The threat of COVID remains, and those we serve are incredibly vulnerable. We have been fortunate thus far but feel the responsibility of working to keep people safe every day.”
“Through the merger and expansion of housing, Roof Above has been through significant growth in the last one-and-a-half years. The purpose of the merger was to have a greater impact on the issue of homelessness, and we believe that our housing expansion and response during the pandemic have shown the fruits of the merger. With that being said, we have to ensure we are building and internal culture and protecting our values and mission.”
THE COMMUNITY VOICE AWARD
The Community Voice Award from Interact Studio is a unique work of art designed for its recipient by Elijah Kell.
“The bowl is completely free-formed so the shape is organic,” he said. “The scattered flower buds and glass threads represent scattered housing sites, and the half of a flower represents people who are still struggling on the outside. I know there will always be more people that Roof Above will continue to reach and help.”