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Where to house all this prosperity?

WHEELING -- The rising tide of Marcellus Shale gas is not lifting all boats, and it appears to be helping to sink a few.

"I found a two-bedroom apartment for $450 in 2011," Jessica Ernest told members of the Legislature earlier this week. "That is unheard of now."

She and other speakers at a meeting of the Senate Select Committee on Children and Poverty on Wednesday cited local apartment rates that have risen to as much as $1,200 a month, pricing lower-wage earners and retirees out of their own hometowns.

"Oil and gas employees are willing to pay $750 for a two-bedroom apartment," Ernest said. "Families in this area are not able to afford it."

Ernest, 23, said the first thing she did when she became pregnant was apply for housing assistance. As a full-time student and part-time waitress, she knew she would need help. That was three years ago. It took a year and a half before she received a voucher.

When she did get the OK, she had such a hard time finding a suitable place in Ohio County, even with help, that she transferred her voucher to Marshall County, where she found the first apartment. She recently lucked into another place and has moved back to Wheeling.

The apartment she left has gone up in price, possibly $100 a month, she said later, but that is a kind landlord. Some raise the price every month until families cannot afford it and move.

Ernest has also finished school and now works for Northern Panhandle Head Start, where she helps parents of small children with their own housing, income and job obstacles.

"I see so many young moms in the exact same situation I was in three years ago," she said.

That Head Start served 791 families in Hancock, Brooke, Ohio, Marshall and Wetzel counties last year, and 20 percent of them were homeless, Executive Director Marlene Midget told lawmakers.

"Prices are up. Affordable housing has disappeared," she said.

Midget cited some of the same concerns the committee has heard before. Chaos and uncertainty in children's day-to-day lives interfere with their school achievement, and even with their development, and contribute to all kinds of problems later.

"If children are worried about where they're going to go after school, they can't learn," she said.

"We're seeing more families coming to us because we provide meals," she said.

But as needs have increased, resources to help have not kept up. Some have even been cut.

"Sequestration has provided us with the opportunity to lose 40 children and families in Marshall County alone." Midget said.

Others told lawmakers that housing programs have stopped taking new applications for help.

Ernest knows both personally and professionally what happens to children when parents can't meet their basic needs.

"Children are bouncing back and forth between their mom's or the boyfriend's," she said. Children may develop difficult behavior, which is hard to discipline and change because there are no set rules or no consistency in rules and schedules.

"It affects their behavior. They're not eating nutritious food, and then it is hard to get them to eat healthy food when you do have it," she said.

Ernest fought back sobs as she spoke to lawmakers. Later, recomposed, she said:

"Part of the reason I cried earlier is I know how easy it would be for me to be in the exact same situation as the families I see, if I'm not able to provide adequate housing for my daughter. I see the effects of inadequate housing on children every day."

Miller, the Gazette's editorial page editor, can be reached at dawn@wvgazette.com.


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