One year after Charlotte exploded in violent protests, United Way is investing millions of dollars in city’s most troubled areas.
One year after uptown Charlotte exploded in violent protests over racial inequality, the city’s United Way is responding with a plan to invest millions of dollars specifically into some of the city’s most troubled neighborhoods.

Among the first to get money from the United Neighborhoods initiative: the Renaissance community in west Charlotte and Grier Heights in east Charlotte.

United Way intends to donate $2.4 million to charities in the two areas over the next three years, money that will boost programs on early childhood education, tutoring for parents and help finding jobs.

“Our goal is to improve the quality of life in individual neighborhoods,” said a statement from Sean Garrett, United Way’s executive director. “To do this, we will work neighborhood by neighborhood, while also working to improve the larger systems that serve children and families across our area.”

Renaissance is a redevelopment project built on top of what was once the 41-acre Boulevard Homes community. Before being torn down, Boulevard Homes had a median household income of $14,034 and only 25 percent of the children in the area scored at or above grade level on statewide tests.

Grier Heights once had an even worse reputation. From 2011 to 2013, the community of 3,000 people had a violent crime rate that was five times the city average, according to an Observer analysis of 2010 census data. Three of four families relied on food stamps, and the school dropout rate was twice as high as the city average.

Both communities are in the midst of a transformations, due to neighborhood-based nonprofit programs focused on households in the immediate area.

“We’ve all witnessed first-hand what’s been happening in our area,” said a statement from United Way board chair Eileen Little. “We know the data about how and why our most challenged neighbors lack opportunities. It is time to move past that by reaching out and meeting our fellow citizens where they are. We are taking action to drive economic mobility.”

Philanthropist and former Family Dollar CEO Howard Levine was among the first to applaud the move to fund under-served neighborhoods. Levine has given more than $1 million to help with the rebirth of the city’s west side. His money is helping build a child development center in Renaissance that will be named in his honor.

He is hoping United Way’s effort will encourage other philanthropists to join the neighborhood approach.
“The United Neighborhoods initiative will go a long way in improving the lives of many families,” Howard said. “I do hope others will follow as there is a very clear need out there.”

The CrossRoads Corporation in Grier Heights is among the nonprofits that will benefit from United Way money. It has been working nine years to revitalize Grier Heights, including the establishment of a community center and construction of new homes for low income families.

Don Gately, who heads CrossRoads, says United Way’s money could help growing preschool programs and efforts to provide adults with computer skills. The exact uses of the money will come only after his staff and United Way meet with neighbors for input.

In doing so, the initiative will avoid friction created in the past when agencies moved into troubled neighborhoods and were perceived as giving orders.

“United Way is coming to the table with sizable resources and volunteers to help us, but their intention is not to come in and take over,” Gately said. “This could have a remarkable impact because they want to join us, side by side, working together to support the programs and services we offer.”

The money United Way intends to invest in the new initiative will come from its annual campaign. The norm has been for United Way to allocate money to agencies based on needs, with critical needs charities given a priority. Giving extra money to the two neighborhood efforts will mean cuts elsewhere, and no agencies are being spared from consideration for cuts, United Way officials said.

Mark Price: 704-358-5245, @markprice_obs