WHEELING – City officials are working on a comprehensive plan – which will almost certainly require a facility, trained staff and significant funding – to tackle the growing problem of homelessness in the city.
Members of the Wheeling City Council’s Health and Recreation Committee met late Friday afternoon with the city’s new homeless liaison, Melissa Adams, as well as Chief Operating Officer Mark Phillips. of Catholic Charities of West Virginia, and Crystal Bauer of Project HOPE. The purpose of the meeting was to begin formal discussions about establishing a low-barrier homeless shelter in Wheeling.
“We have various shelters in the city of Wheeling for our homeless community, but each one from what I understand has different guidelines and parameters and exceptions that need to be made for people to qualify or be eligible. to use these shelters,” Councilor Rosemary Ketchum, chair of the health and recreation committee, said. “As I understand it, there is currently no low barrier shelter in the city of Wheeling where someone who may have a criminal history or who may use substances or who does not have ID may be.”
Officials explained that people without any form of identification are among those who fall through the cracks and end up living on the streets instead of being served by one of the various social service organizations that offer a shelter, but do so within the required guidelines. Often, federal funding and grants are only made available to agencies that require clients to produce some form of identification. Beyond that, organizations must also adhere to their own bylaws, guidelines and mission statements – and some only serve men or only serve women and children, cannot serve people with criminal records, can only serve people who have not become homeless in another state, or have other exclusionary regulations.
“There’s no way for a barrier-free or low-barrier shelter to generate revenue or break even,” Phillips said. “So you need other kinds of programs, and you need some kind of funding to support people who have IDs. But right now, no organization has the location and sources of income that would allow for what we would consider emergency shelter.
Youth Services System Inc. operates the Winter Freeze Shelter during the cold months of the year, and it provides low barrier shelter for people who need a warm place to sleep. But this service is only offered seasonally as a “band aid” to protect against the cold. A year-round low-barrier shelter that provides necessary services to people is something that is missing in the region, and this contributes to the growing trend of people living on the streets or in homeless tents and encampments. .
“A low barrier doesn’t necessarily mean there are no rules,” Adams said. “For an effective low-barrier shelter, there must be an education component. There needs to be a mental health and addiction component. A full-time, low-barrier shelter would allow us – that is, us who work with the homeless population – to have a platform to be able to help them grow as individuals and change .
“Our number one goal would be to eliminate empowerment.”
Not everyone would benefit from such a program and would prefer to sleep outside, officials agreed. But if given the option to stay in a shelter instead of being turned away due to certain admissions regulations or guidelines, officials said, many homeless people would — and accept the type of help and services they need.
“Statistically, given the opportunity to learn, grow and make positive changes, it has effectively and dramatically changed communities when it comes to homelessness,” Adams said.
Since taking on the position of Homelessness Liaison for the City of Wheeling in November, Adams said she has been working on a plan to develop a Life Hub to include a facility and a fundraising mechanism through the through subsidies and possibly other means. The Life Hub would include a medical facility and addiction services, partnerships with other local social service agencies, and a dormitory-style low-barrier shelter for men and women. Agencies would retain their own identity, but spaces would be provided for them to offer their unique services. Mental health services, life skills counseling and job training would also be key components of the settlement.
Officials noted that there will be people who choose to live in tents outside of a shelter. Councilman Ben Seidler, a member of the committee, said that with this in mind, it would be ideal if a central, well-run location for one encampment was maintained while other random encampments scattered throughout the city – particularly along heritage trail and near public parks – would be prohibited.
“Homelessness is a difficult and traumatic experience,” Phillips said. “Even for those who have been doing it for several years, it is still difficult. When you continue to live on the outside, you are unable to see a better future for yourself. So even a few nights indoors can totally change someone’s behavior. Having that access to someone when they’ve showered, when they’re fed, when they feel safe, and when they feel like they’re somewhere they have a right to be – it helps them to envision a future for themselves, and it gives us an “in”.
One of the biggest contributing factors to the growing homeless population is actually children aging in foster care and ending up living on the streets, officials said.
“The common denominator of all homeless people is mental health,” said Bauer, who noted that services are lifesaving. “We have people in this community, unfortunately, who are so mentally ill that they don’t know how sick they are. These people in particular are very difficult to get into shelters or a gathering space because of their behaviors. You will never get rid of it. »
Bauer said five people who lived at the Wheeling Inn, who are seniors who have lived there for years, are currently being relocated. City officials said they could not comment on issues regarding homeless people living at the Wheeling Inn due to a pending order declaring the downtown hotel a public nuisance due to activities crimes described in a report by the city manager and the chief of police.
Officials are looking to create an option for a year-round temporary emergency shelter in the city as long-term plans for a living center continue to develop. Adams said the effort is still ongoing as she continues to develop the plan, seek funding through grants and benefactors, and work with other social service agencies. A pilot program will likely be offered to help kick-start the effort.
Discussions on a plan for the project should be brought back to the table before the committee in late May or early June, officials said.