Location: Charlotte, NC
When Dale Mullennix was in seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, struggling to reconcile his desire to pursue a life in the ministry with his anger at the church, he had an epiphany. He told a friend, “I want to be the pastor of the last chance Baptist church. The place where people go who are about to give up on the church.” And in many ways, that is where he landed, both as his first job out of seminary at Charlotte, North Carolina’s Myers Park Baptist Church and in his role as director of Urban Ministry Center, where he spent the last twenty-five years supporting people who are homeless in the Queen City.
Dale felt instantly at home at Myers Park Baptist, where he was hired in 1979 to be in charge of youth engagement and service in the community. As a child, he had questioned his conservative Southern Baptist church’s literalist interpretation of the bible (he got reprimanded in second grade for asking where the dinosaurs were in the bible) but he had also known that the church was a loving and nurturing presence in his life. The congregation at Myers Park Baptist was filled with “lots of questioners and doubters,” he says, but also folks who were “so welcoming and open-minded.” It was, he says, “a great fit.”
By 1981, the church was able to hire a full-time youth minister and Dale was able to focus exclusively on mission work. He partnered with other churches to bring Habitat for Humanity to Charlotte, provided forums on peacekeeping and issues related to the Nuclear Arms Race, developed a shared living arrangement for older adults as an alternative to nursing homes, forged a partnership with US-USSR Bridges for Peace, and even started a group for people who felt rejected by the church. “It all shaped my world view of the community,” Dale says, “and how to get out of our comfort zone in Myers Park to stretch and grow and serve.”
Dale’s community outreach proved to be the perfect segue for running the Urban Ministry Center, a joint venture of Charlotte’s business and church communities to serve the city’s homeless population. Dale was asked to take on the daunting job in October 1994, not because he had expertise in working with people who are homeless, but because he had a reputation for getting things done and forging partnerships in the community. His response to the call was to tell a friend, “That’s a burnout job if ever I heard of one.” But he agreed to meet with the board of directors and was, he says, “captivated by the mission” and knew it was “the right thing to do.”
The business community raised the capitol to purchase and renovate an abandoned train depot north of the city and churches provided volunteers and an initial operating budget of $225.000.
The early vision was for the Urban Ministry Center to provide a better group of services to the homeless community. Basic needs would be met, like access to a meal, shower, phone, and mailbox, but support across a wide range of needs would also be offered without judgment or prerequisites. Dale was also committed to educating the community about homelessness, by educating the Urban Ministry Center volunteers and providing community outreach and learning opportunities, such as the Walk in my Shoes program that offers role plays and case studies for businesses and church and community groups.
Looking back, Dale now sees that his lack of expertise in working with people who are homeless served the Urban Ministry Center well. “We didn’t know enough to make a plan up front,” he says, “so we just asked everyone what they needed.” In so doing, they were able to offer a host of services and support that were client-led. “In our ignorance,” Dale says, “we were empowering them by putting them in charge of how we could help them.” They also instituted an open-door policy that allowed anyone who needed them to access their services without meeting any requirements or adhering to criteria that had been set forth. “I trained the volunteer counselors to think of themselves as travel agents,” Dale says. “Each person is trying to go somewhere. We need to help them craft the ways they can get there. But we don’t get to pick the destinations.”
The initial staff consisted of Dale, a soup kitchen director and a custodian. They initially fed 150-160 people per day and now feed double that each day. Their budget has grown to $11 million, thanks to continued support from the business community and church community and individual donations. The numbers only tell part of the story, however, showcasing the growth of the Urban Ministry Center (often called “the hub” by its clients) under Dale’s 25 years at its helm but not the innovation with which he addressed the slew of challenges that confronted him. It is his unique approach to solving problems and finding solutions that make him most proud of the work he did.
Dale soon realized that the challenges facing people who are chronically homeless – those who have been homeless continuously for at least one year or multiple times in a three-year period – exceeded what any one agency or nonprofit could tackle. He had the Urban Ministry Center join forces with other agencies working with the city’s homeless population to form a continuum of care. “We identified the key hurdles,” Dale says, “and placed ourselves along the continuum to coordinate resources and make sure we weren’t duplicating resources.” The Urban Ministry Center was designated as the front door, serving as the initial step in the continuum of care. They developed a model they called ETC, highlighting the focus of their initial interaction with a new client: Engagement, Trust, and Changing Lives. This represented a fundamental change in approach for many of their volunteers and partners because a natural instinct is to want to start with C (changing lives), but Dale emphasized that you must first start with E (engagement) in order for the other two steps to even be possible.
Urban Ministries also stepped out of the box with its housing first model. “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps doesn’t work for this crowd,” Dale explains. Using matrix to identify their most vulnerable clients, people who were chronically homeless and were most likely to die without immediate intervention, the Urban Ministry Center focused on first finding them housing. They built Mooreplace, a 120-unit apartment complex, and placed people there so that they could, as Dale says, “solve the rest of their problems within the stability of their home rather than trying to figure it out while they were still homeless.” The model, which also includes having social workers and nurses on the premises, showed remarkable success rates (such as a 91 percent reduction in prison time and a 2.4 million dollar reduction in hospital bills over a two-year period). It has now been expanded to an additional 250 clients who are part of a “scattered site program,” where they receive the same services but are living in individual units within already established apartment complexes with cooperation from the landlords.
“There was an assumption that these people would always fail,” Dale says. By providing them with stable housing and then addressing some of their other challenges and issues once they were off the street, Dale was able to change the community conversation. “We started talking about how to solve homelessness rather than how to endure it,” Dale says. He considers that his greatest legacy. “We can solve this thing,” he says.
Reflecting on his time working with people who are homeless and leading such a massive initiative that grew immensely in both its size and scope during his tenure, Dale says he has a renewed appreciation for the importance of partnerships. “This has been a community effort,” he says. “We were in a leadership role, but we could not have done what we were able to accomplish without the faith and business community, donors, volunteers, and the city, county, and state stepping up and partnering with us.”
It is those partnerships, and the thousands of volunteers who have helped the Urban Ministry Center fulfill its mission, that Dale cherishes. “As hard as this work is,” he says, “it is amazing how many people want to help.” He worked hard to always create a path for those wanting to help, providing education and training for volunteers at the Urban Ministry Center and creative venues in the community, such as Room at the Inn (an overnight winter shelter program at places of worship, YMCAs and schools). “For all our egotism and selfishness, the average person wants to help and make a difference and have an impact,” Dale says.
I agree. It is so gratifying and encouraging to see how many people are out there doing good things and making the world better. Dale notes that often what holds people back is a vision for how to help and a path for volunteering and contributing. Thanks to leaders like Dale for providing that vision and leading the way.
For more information about the Urban Ministry Center, visit: