— Area network works tirelessly behind the scenes to assist local homeless.

It’s easy to say you would have done things differently. It’s easy to trivialize someone’s experience and assume they made mistakes that could have been avoided. It’s easy to ignore or deny privilege, and it’s effortless to separate yourself from social issues that may not directly have an effect on your life.

Never having been without the security of having a place to live, it’s difficult to imagine what it means to be homeless. Those who have been less fortunate seem to be too easily assigned responsibility for their circumstances. Outstretching a hand or even trying to find a warm place to sleep are often met with stigma and assumptions about life decisions of the individual in need. The necessity for empathy and care seems to sometimes be the last priority within these interactions.

Some humanitarian groups make this care their primary initiative, and serve a constant goal of advocating and bringing awareness for the homeless community. The West Virginia Coalition to End Homelessness (WVCEH) is a non-profit organization based in Bridgeport, WV, serving 44 counties, with the mission of providing resources to reduce homelessness throughout the state.

The primary goals of WVCEH involve maintaining sustainable housing, resources, and referrals for mental and physical health, guidance for assimilation into residential society, and personal and professional development for individuals in the homeless community. WVCEH maintains a “housing-first” mentality, in which they recognize that attempting to improve issues within an individual’s life will remain difficult until they can maintain consistent housing. This approach is crucial in their reflection that homeless individuals also often face several areas of vulnerability, with the unlikelihood of a single concern leading to homelessness.

Ellie Johnson serves as the Housing Stabilization Case Manager for the Eastern Panhandle, serving eight counties for WVCEH. She explained that homelessness is not a status for only lasting (“chronic”) cases, reporting that it is viewed upon a night-to-night basis. Johnson defined homelessness as any individual residing in a space that is not meant for human habitation (abandoned buildings, a car, along the river). She stated that with the exception of cases of domestic violence, an individual does have to be currently homeless to receive assistance, and not exclusively at risk for homelessness, or holding a history of homelessness.

The three types of housing opportunity support provided include permanent supportive housing (lifetime subsidy), rapid re-housing (temporary complete subsidy of housing for up to 12 months), and refer-out programs (helping to find housing opportunity). Placement is based upon determined level of need through assessment, including an initial analysis of 16 domains of wellness and stability, and interim reports performed every three months.

Johnson explained that, though some individuals may receive financial assistance from the government, a social security or disability check alone is often not sufficient to cover even the cheapest rent in Berkeley or Jefferson County. “Those that simply cannot work due to a disability should still have access to housing,” she emphasized.

WVCEH proudly reports that only 1.2 percent of those benefiting from rapid re-housing return to homelessness within two years. According to Johnson, although these housing programs have been successful, limited affordable housing has resulted in WVCEH serving more clients outdoors than in assisted housing. The organization also maintains detailed cases for each individual, and provides guidance and development opportunity, such as signing up for government assistance programs, career counseling, enrollment in educational programs, and referrals to other resources.

Some examples of organizations with which WVCEH often collaborates include Veteran Affairs, DHHR, Telamon Corporation, Bethany House, Shenandoah Women’s Center, Emmanuel’s House, Faith Community Coalition for the Homeless, Martinsburg Union Rescue Mission, EastRidge Health Systems, local police, and another champion of advocacy and resources in this area known as Jefferson County Community Ministries (JCCM), headquartered in Charles Town.

Building Up From Basic Needs

While WVCEH and JCCM do have some overlap in their offered services and resources (clothing, hygiene supplies, health care services, help acquiring IDs, etc.), WVCEH focuses more on housing stability while JCCM provides more immediate daily resources. Some of these resources include daily meals, computer access, public transportation tickets, life skills courses, clothing closet(s), and temporary shelter throughout winter months. While neither organization has any required courses or workshops for clients, JCCM encourages attending sessions by providing items from the Clothing Closet as incentive. Johnson explained that even though WVCEH does not require clients to go to any programs, the caseworkers encourage attendance. “The only mandatory criteria for our program is homelessness,” she noted. “Housing shouldn’t be a reward for doing something right in your life. Housing is a need. You can’t expect anyone to want to better any other part of their life if they’re freezing.”

JCCM also recognizes the importance of providing safety and warmth. In cooperation with JCCM, a series of churches throughout Jefferson County take turns providing a nightly cold weather shelter from the months of October to March. Churches in this rotation include some in Charles Town (Asbury UMC, Charles Town Baptist, Kingdom Life, Oakland UMC, St. James, St. Thomas, Zion Episcopal), Shepherdstown (Asbury UMC, Covenant, Shepherdstown Presbyterian), and Shenandoah Junction (Fellowship Bible). These churches alternate approximately every week to host women and men of the homeless community. Johnson voiced approval of this program, stating that she has noticed the shelter’s growing attendance. She attributed this growing success to the amount of resources, as well as increased awareness of opportunity, and suggested some direction for continued improvement.

“Of all of the resources available, one that needs improvement is availability for mental health providers,” she said—explaining that finding placement within a scheduled mental health program requires at least eight weeks. The only other option would be standing in line at EastRidge starting at 6:30am on Fridays—to be seen in the open intake opportunity beginning at 8am. Obvious exception would be in times of crisis, in which someone may be admitted through the ER, but this raises a concern of ability to contact or procure transport.

Johnson offered other ways to help the homeless community. “We have warm clothes, but what we need are basics that everyone utilizes when first moving into an apartment, like toilet paper, towels, pillows, shower rods and curtains, and cleaning supplies. We also cannot accept used beds or couches, but we need new beds. We also desperately need spaces for our clients, so locating landlords and houses would be helpful.”

Student organizations at Shepherd University have also been leading by example, with groups like Alpha Phi Omega, Alternative Spring Break, Multicultural Leadership Team, and Rotaract donating their time for local initiatives to support the homeless community.

A final need of significance involves changing the narrative surrounding homelessness. “We need to change the notion that every homeless person is on drugs, using the system, living off of the state, or that they’re lazy,” said Johnson. “There is an automatic assumption that if you’re homeless, it’s because you didn’t try hard enough and these are consequences of your behavior. In reality, there’s an absolute—the amount of money it takes to be stably housed on your own without education or government subsidy is a real obstacle.”

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