How Wake County and a California nonprofit will use hotels to fight homelessness

Wake County and a California-based nonprofit will join forces to convert two hotels into affordable housing for people experiencing long-term homelessness.

“The only solution to homelessness, particularly for those who’ve been on the street for a long time is to give them a home with the support services,” said Tod Lipka, president and CEO of the nonprofit Step Up. “This model works. So our intention is to make a significant positive impact on chronic homelessness in Wake County, with this project.”

Step Up will buy the hotels with Wake County providing vouchers to cover the rent for the people who stay there. The names and locations of the hotels have not been released.

“I can’t talk about particular projects because we are still negotiating, but our model is to convert motels, rundown motels, and convert the motel unit into a studio apartment by doing a complete refresh on the site and adding a kitchenette,” Lipka said.

The news was announced at the Clinton Global Initiative annual meeting in New York City by Lorena McDowell, Wake County’s director of Affordable Housing and Community Revitalization.

“I was deeply honored to represent Wake County today alongside so many leaders who are working to do good in their communities,” McDowell said Monday in a news release. “This recognition reflects the incredible progress we’re making to provide affordable housing to those in need.”

Step Up has already bought a hotel in Asheville and is negotiating for one in Greensboro, Lipka said. The nonprofit wants to create 500 affordable housing units within the next two years in North Carolina, including about 160 units in Raleigh.

About 97% of people who find housing at a Step Up property are still housed a year later, he said.

“Many people think that people who have been on the street for a long time don’t want housing,” Lipka said. “But that is really not true. It’s because they developed a hard exterior to years of disappointment about not getting the single most important thing to solve their problem, which is a home.”

Tod Lipka is the CEO of Step Up.
Tod Lipka is the CEO of Step Up.

How many are homeless in Wake County?

There are more than 1,500 people who are homeless in Wake County, according to a federally required count.

Low-cost hotels can be an alternative for unsheltered people, but they can also be dangerous places to live. In July, The News & Observer reported the Wake Inn off New Bern Avenue had generated 832 calls for police this year, and that nearly 150 overdoses had been reported at the hotel since 2019, including 34 this year.

Step Up provides supportive services, including live-in property managers and case managers, to people living in the converted hotels. People need help making a transition from unlearning “survival skills” that helped them when they lived on the street, Lipka said.

“We had one tenant who would scream at the top of his lungs at 2 and 3 in the morning when he was in housing,” he said. “That was disturbing to his neighbors. But he did that because that was a habit he learned on the street. If you do that at 2:30 in the morning people stay away from you and you stay safe. It was a creative mechanism for staying safe when you’re sleeping outdoors.”

He needed help understanding he would now be safe by locking his doors, Lipka said.