The groups working to end homelessness in Wake County are chipping away at it. Their problem is the rock pile gets bigger because of what they call “the community system”a political and economic structure that produces more low-wage jobs than it does affordable housing.

It’s also a system that produces rhetorical support, but so far no business or political champion, to fight for their cause.

These were the two recurring points I heard Dec. 8 at the weekly meeting of the oversight team for the Raleigh/ Wake County 10-Year Action Plan to End and Prevent Homelessness. My initial stories in this series, called “Faces of homelessness,” focused on three men who, for different reasons, were homeless and jobless. They were questioning what progress, if any, the 10-year plan had made.

After those stories appeared, I was invited to talk with the team leaders, representing the City of Raleigh, Wake County, the Wake League of Women Voters, Triangle United Way, and a number of nonprofit social service agencies including the Women’s Center of Wake County, Haven House and the Raleigh Rescue Mission.

They are doing what they can with limited resources, said Ken Maness, a former city planner who is Raleigh’s team member. “There are a lot of initiatives under way, and we’re starting to show outcomes for each of them in terms of people being helped.”

Maness pointed to such efforts as the chronically homeless employment program at the South Wilmington center, which last year placed three men in ongoing jobs and six in subsidized apartments. A program of “support circles” has paired 23 religious congregations with 28 homeless families, including 61 children, supplying necessities like transportation and child care so the adults can work.

Federal funding was obtained to house 21 chronically homeless men who are visited by county social workers or state-funded mental health aides. A new initiative is aimed at mentoring homeless kids.

But the resources are limited, emphasized Jean Williams, executive director of the Women’s Center, because homelessness is not a priority for the community or its elected leaders. “What I think we’ve learned in this time is how slowly things move when you’re trying to change things or create something new,” Williams said. “When the economy’s good, there’s no money. And when the economy’s bad, there’s no money. Which tells me it’s about priorities, and not whether there’s money or not.”

Another reason homelessness is a low priority, she said, is that agencies have done a good job of “hiding” it in shelters, soup kitchens and basement locations like the Women’s Center. Redevelopment in downtown Raleigh has driven homeless people off of Fayetteville Street and into the side streets, the parks and nearby woods.

It’s been nearly five years since Raleigh and Wake County agreed, in January 2004, to tackle homelessness as part of a national initiative supported by the Bush administration. The Raleigh/ Wake County oversight team, however, says it is just one-third of the way into the 10 yearscounting from when its plan was written and adopted.

Either way, it’s been a hard slog. One of the most promising initiatives, a job-placement effort with the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce, was three full years in the making, team members said. Chamber members like Cisco Systems, Waste Industries and The News & Observer were willing participants from the get-go, but they didn’t want to be “left out there alone,” one said, to cope not just with the job needs of the homeless people they might hire but the panoply of their personal and family issues as well. Finally this year, Wake County created a position of employment liaison, filled by Laura Martin, a county human services department employee.

Martin is busy pulling together meetings with Chamber staffers and businesses that committed to the initiative in concept three years agoback when the economy was booming.

Then there’s the transportation problem. Williams said she’s fielding an increasing number of requests from the homeless women who attend programs at her center for its limited supply of free-ride tickets on the CAT bus system. Various county agencies and nonprofits do likewise, she said, so last year Williams conducted a survey to determine how many tickets were given away in a year. The total: Some 32,000, or an average of about 11 per year per homeless adult. Children ride free.

So that’s 11 free rides a year, Williams said, to get to job interviews, the food stamp office, doctor’s appointments, children’s appointments. And that’s not counting the tickets you’ll need if you get a job and have to wait two weeks to be paid.

The number of free rides is not nearly enough.

When you’re looking for a job, and are carless, you can’t take any jobs that are not on a bus lineor that are on a bus line, but require night work.

But the biggest problem, every team member said, and the “bottleneck” in their world, is the growing shortage of affordable housing in Wake County.

It’s a multi-dimensional problem, starting with the homeless shelters themselves, all of which are too small to meet the demand.A 24/7 intake center, says Cynthia Gallion, who volunteers on the committee trying to establish one, would accept homeless people sent by other programs or shelters and provide on-site services to stabilize them. They would also refer people to available housing elsewhere.

It’s not clear, though were the center would send people since all of Wake County’s homeless shelters are too small to meet demand. The county-run South Wilmington Street Center for men, the Helen Wright Center for women (run by Urban Ministries of Wake County), the Raleigh Rescue Mission’s shelter and the Salvation Army’s shelter, turn people away nightlyexcept on “white-flag” nights when the temperature drops below freezing and they open their doors to all comers.

Wake County Commissioner Lindy Brown is pushing for a 24/7 intake center and has urged city and town councils in Wake County to step up affordable housing starts. The End Homelessness team is also pushing for more affordable housing in the community of all kindswhere homeless folks could go once they’ve been in a shelter, gotten their lives under control, found work and are ready to take a next step. In this broad category, they include private apartments with low rents, apartments built with public rent subsidies, and supported-housing units that combine rent subsidies with additional funding for social-services counselors.

Over the last year, team members said, Wake County added 43 supported-housing units and several hundred rent-subsidized units, including the new Carleton Place project in Raleigh built by the nonprofit Downtown Housing Improvement Corporation (DHIC).

But those numbers pale in comparison, they said, to the need caused by the county’s population boom, which draws low-wage workers as well as the affluent, and by displacement of existing low-rent apartment stock. By one estimate, offered by the League of Women Voters’ longtime housing advocate Marie Moylan, at least 1,000 units of affordable housing were lost to teardowns and redevelopment last year.

Hence, the bottleneck.

Maness cited one case of a woman with four children who lived for two years at the Salvation Army’s shelter after she had found work and was ready to be “re-housed.” Even with the help of an experienced caseworker at the Salvation Army, it took that long for the woman to find something she could afford on her low pay, he said.

In the end, he said, the woman needed the help of a “Support Circle” programa church that took her family under its wingto save enough money for all of the move-in expenses, including utility deposits.

Low wages, team members said, are another glaring problem. When the business and political communities talk, as they do, about addressing the need for “workforce housing,” typically they mean housing for cops and teachers, which is the easy part. But at the average fair-market rental rate of $747 a month for a one-bedroom apartment, Martin said, a person would need to be making $14 an hour to avoid paying more than 30 percent of her income for housing, a standard benchmark.

But folks working at a fast-food restaurant, a retail store or in the cleaning business usually make about half that much, meaning they pay as much as 50 percent or more of their income for housing. As Maness said, that doesn’t leave them enough money for food, medicines, their childrenand can lead to health problems or even petty crimes. The problems are exacerbated for people overcoming mental disabilities who may find themselves overwhelmed.

Supplying affordable housing to low-wage workers isn’t cheap, Maness and Martin said. But studies show that it’s less expensive in the long run than the cost of unnecessary emergency-room visits, court time and jail stays. Here’s the real housing problem, the oversight team said: While the official homeless count is about 1,100 people in Wake County, thousandsby one estimate more than 30,000are living doubled-up in other people’s houses, on a sofa, on the move from place to place, and are on the verge of homelessness.

Though these couch-hoppers wouldn’t recognize themselves as near-homeless, they eventually will enter the homelessness system in larger numbers than the system is graduating. Or they would enter it except for the bottleneck caused by the lack of affordable housing, which clogs the shelters with people who should be moving on to something better.

“What we’re really saying is, the community system is almost producing homelessproducing people who are at risk of becoming homeless,” Fitzgerald said. “We’re swimming upstream trying to produce the political will and the community education …”

Team members have high hopes for a new task force on affordable housing created by the Raleigh City Council. One slipped and referred to it as an affordable housing commission: That’s what they wanted, but the Council wasn’t ready to go that far.

The difference is, a commission would be a permanent advisory body to the Council. The task force will make recommendations and then, unless its life is extended, it will disappear.

The task force is discussing incentives for developers to include affordable unitsand affordable by minimum-wage workers as well as by teachersin all new projects.

The city already has incentives, but they’re so weak developers on even the biggest high-rises can simply pay $10,000 and skirt them. Beefing them up to where they might produce housing units is a step the City Council has for years declined to take.

That’s where the role of a “champion” would come in. Other communities around the country where the 10-year plans have taken hold, Maness said, are helped by a formal leadera person or an organizationwho turns ending homelessness from a vague idea into a living, breathing crusade.

Their own 10-year plan suggests the need for one here as well, he said. But thus far, no champion has been foundor emerged.

“We need to educate the larger community,” Williams said, “so that it becomes a priority. Because what we hear from our elected officials is, ‘Nobody calls us up and says, Hey, why don’t we have more affordable housing?’ Our challenge is to get more of an army pressing for the cause.”

Members of the oversight team are at the South Wilmington Street Center Dec. 11., where they and the men living at the shelter will hear progress reports about the various initiatives undertaken in the 10-year plan. We’ll follow up with a report about what we learn there.