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The Charleston Gazette -- Homeless: Quietly suffering

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Some West Virginia families are having a hard time keeping a roof over their heads. Consider:

• In Wheeling, apartments that rented for $450 a month five years ago now cost $1,000 because of demand from out-of-state gas drillers and their willingness to pay. Livable apartments are in short supply.

• All over the state, help with housing is taking a hit. Federal Community Development Block Grants have been cut every year for 10 years, says Ellen Allen, executive director of Covenant House in Charleston.

• Federal "sequestration" is also messing with budgets of people who help the most vulnerable citizens. Thanks to sequestration, Covenant House lost $12,000 budgeted to run the day shelter -- a place where homeless people can shower, wash clothes, make phone calls, connect to other services and work on improving their situations.

The most recent count of homelessness done in January found more than 1,000 people in emergency shelters and hotels across the state. There were another 224 in transitional housing and 272 "unsheltered," people living in conditions considered unfit for habitation, such as cars and abandoned buildings. Those numbers don't capture the whole problem. Advocates know that homeless people are undercounted in rural areas because the official count misses "couch surfers," people who rotate from friend to friend every few weeks. It also does not include people in treatment centers, emergency rooms or jails who have no place to go when they are released.

While it is difficult to precisely count the number of people in trouble, it is not difficult to see problems worsen.

"Someone last week described our work as soul-crushing," Allen said. "We're seeing more people and new faces."

Among the help Covenant House offers is canned food, much of it collected during the annual Canstruction event. This year the event generated 17,000 cans of food, and it was gone in three months.

At the Greater Wheeling Coalition for the Homeless, executive director Lisa Badia, said sequestration is costing $3,000 out of an $18,000 fund that pays for utilities and maintenance on their building. The coalition will either have to figure out how to cut consumption or raise more donations from the local community.

The coalition recently helped a woman who was temporarily unable to work after her baby was born. Without help, she would have been evicted and homeless. The coalition covered her rent. The woman recovered and was able to return to work and pay for her own housing.

The next time that scenario occurs, there won't be funds to help, Badia said. Someone in that situation now would lose her housing and be moved to a shelter, probably several counties away, meaning she would also lose her job and whatever family support she has.

Homelessness is a symptom of many problems -- job loss, mental illness, violence, substance abuse, or sometimes just a string of really tough setbacks. While solutions vary somewhat for each community, some answers are universal. Housing agencies need more funds, not less, in a time of greater need. They need flexibility to spend in ways that meet the needs of people, and they need knowledgeable, patient staff to help people work their way back to self-reliance.

None of them need funding cuts, mid-year budget upsets and the distraction of trying to keep the lights on while more needy people literally gather at the door.


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