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Between a rock a hardwood floor 

For Charlotte's homeless citizens, the Holy Grail is a set of keys to a front door and a new lease on life

When the door slammed shut behind Susan Condrey, it was an audible reminder that her life's downward spiral, three decades in the making, had now plunged to its lowest depth. With that sound, she had nowhere to go. No place to be. No one to turn to. And she didn't care.

All the 47-year-old really cared about was getting high -- smoking crack and shooting heroin. If she had any other concern, it was for Hanna and Sliprock, two mutts she'd rescued from a shelter when she still had a husband, parents, a house and a placid, financially comfortable life.

Condrey took her two dogs, leashes in hand, and walked away from the last real home she would know for more than 18 months. She wasn't sure what would happen next. She only knew she needed a fix. And she didn't know where she'd sleep that night.

Barry Webb didn't know where to go the day he got out of Pasquotank Correctional Institution in eastern North Carolina.

He knew he didn't want to go back to Lexington. He'd be distracted there by the ghosts of his old life, the one that handed him 17 months in prison on a felony weapons conviction.

Webb needed a change, so he bought a one-way Greyhound ticket to Charlotte and crossed his fingers, hoping for a better life. But finding it here wasn't going to be easy with a criminal record, no money and no job. He wound up at the Uptown Men's Shelter.

It wasn't much, but it was a place to stay. And for that, Webb was grateful.

On paper, it may look as if the unlucky souls who find themselves homeless in Charlotte have lots of choices: two winter shelters, five year-round emergency shelters and 17 transitional housing programs to bridge the gap between the streets and a home. But when you figure that an estimated 5,000 people are homeless on any given night in Charlotte, that's really not so many places after all. According to a 2004 US Conference of Mayors report, about 15 percent of homeless people can't find a spot in a shelter, whether it's because they don't meet facility requirements, such as sobriety or curfew restrictions, or simply because the shelters are all full. So they scrape together money for a fleabag motel. Or they double up in apartments. Or they sleep in cars, on the streets or in one of the makeshift homeless camps that dot Mecklenburg County.

Susan Condrey and Barry Webb now consider themselves lucky. They were able to work their way up from the streets and into apartments and jobs. It wasn't easy. They had to surrender a bit of their freedom, and they had to grapple with their addictions. But in return, both got help that they say they'll never be able to pay back.

Both found refuge in programs providing housing that's somewhere between a hot-and-a-cot shelter and a permanent home. Both were able to take a breather before having to worry about working a job and saving money -- or where they would sleep at night.

Condrey was able to learn the computer skills that enabled her to get the job she has today as facility manager at the Charlotte Rescue Mission's Dove's Nest treatment program for women. "Really, I couldn't move a mouse," she says. "I didn't know what 'PC' meant."

Webb was able to save nearly $3,000 in five months while picking up yard-sale bargains for the apartment he wanted for himself and his teenage son. "Some people call it cheap," he says. "But you know, I'm not trying to live above my means."

The role of a homeless person wasn't something either Condrey or Webb had ever planned. "If somebody've told me a couple years back that I would have lived in a shelter, I'd have laughed at them," says Webb. "Not me -- I'd always worked."

In the past decade, transitional housing programs have lost some of their appeal as advocates for the homeless search for a solution to a problem that has shown little sign of abating. Though some shelters have been around for many decades -- such as the Rebound program at Charlotte Rescue Mission, which opened in 1938 -- street homelessness as we commonly think of it today didn't exist on a large scale until the late 1970s and early 80s.

Economics, federal policies and changes in the mental health system -- as well as housing shortages -- were among the more prominent factors that created the homeless crisis on which Americans now spend $1 billion a year.

President Ronald Reagan took a lot of heat for not dealing adequately with the problem, in part because the US Department of Housing and Urban Development's budget was cut by three-quarters, from $32 billion in 1981 to $7.5 billion by 1988, on his watch. A comment he made on ABC's Good Morning America in 1984 only fanned the flames. Reagan told host David Hartman that "one problem that we've had even in the best of times. . . is the people who are sleeping on the grates, the homeless, who are homeless you might say by choice."

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