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Annual 'night out' spotlights area's homeless

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- For Charleston resident Amber Bailey, her reason for helping the homeless is simple: she's been there.

"We've all been there. Everybody falls on hard times," she said. "I had a house fire in 2011, and luckily, I was able to jump around and crash with friends with babies. I had two kids. I've got my own place now and I'm a student at [Kanawha Valley Community and Technical College]. Most people just need a helping hand."

Bailey was homeless for nearly a year and said, when her psychology teacher at KVCTC told her about One Night Without A Home, she wanted to donate her time and resources to helping the homeless in Charleston.

One Night Without A Home is an annual event sponsored by the Kanawha Valley Collective and is an opportunity for residents to spend a night outside to discuss, think about and learn about homelessness. The event, held Friday at Magic Island in Charleston, also promotes food and clothing donations.

According to Traci Strickland, vice president of the Kanawha Valley Collective, a one-day "snapshot" of the homeless population in the Kanawha Valley on Jan. 24 of this year totaled 411 homeless people. Strickland said the vast majority live in the city of Charleston.

"Once you leave Charleston, your closest homeless shelters are Huntington and Beckley," she said. "Boone, Logan, Lincoln and Putnam counties just don't have shelters so, if someone needs an emergency shelter, they're going to have to come to a larger city."

The event, now in its seventh year, encourages members of the city's homeless population to come out and learn more about job and housing opportunities, as well as to eat food and enjoy warmth and live music.

"We want people to be aware of the homeless problem in Charleston, and what we're trying to do is help with that," said Traci Johnson, program coordinator for the Kanawha Institute for Social Research & Action. "We're trying to offer services for them, and that is one of the reasons KISRA is here, because we help people try to find employment."

Previously, the event was  for 12 hours and encouraged participants to sleep outside for a night to get a glimpse of homelessness, but it has been scaled back. This year's event ran from 6 p.m. to midnight.

Strickland said she hopes people learn from it.

"One night, I stayed out with a gentleman who did not want to go to the shelter," Strickland said. "He was very resistant. He and I sat around the bonfire all night; he would sleep, he would get up and we would talk.

"It took probably six months after the event to get him involved with services, but he was a veteran and we got him involved with the VA service center and got him involved with some housing assistance, and he actually got housed."

According to Strickland, the solution to homelessness is simpler than most people realize, and very straightforward.

"The answer to homelessness is housing -- more decent, affordable housing and assistance paying for that housing," she said. "Homelessness is expensive -- and it is expensive for society. Having people who are living on the streets, and they get arrested for loitering, being outside, trespassing.

"We've done cost studies where the homeless were costing the city about $70,000 a year in ER visits, for police, in EMS services. People want to say they don't want to pay for things, but they're already paying."

For KVCTC students Heather Walker and Mika Crace, living in Charleston and seeing the issue firsthand compelled them to attend Friday's event.

"Everyone remembers 'Aqualung,'" Walker said, referring to a longtime area homeless man. "I remember walking to the bar, bringing out food from Chili's and giving him our food. He was so sweet. It was one of those things. I just felt so bad for him.  . . .  It's such a small state, and yet there's all this stuff that isn't talked about."

Crace recalled a man who had died of exposure. The man, Robert Lee Hissom, was found dead in December 2010 under the Quarrier Street Bridge, behind the Charleston Civic Center.

"He literally froze to death," Crace said. "That shouldn't happen. That just should never happen."

Reach Lydia Nuzum at lydia.nuzum@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5189.


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