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Fri Jul 3, 2020, 02:25 AM

"How The Coronavirus Made Ending Homelessness Even More Critical"; WV, Appalachia

- "How the Coronavirus Made Ending Homelessness Even More Critical."- By Taylor Sisk, YES! Magazine, *June 3, 2020. Clarksburg, West Virginia, had mapped out a plan to create a housing-first program for its homeless population. Then the pandemic hit, and the plan went into overdrive. - Excerpts/Ed.

COVID-19 has forced Lou Ortenzio to assume a new role. “My new job,” Ortenzio, executive director of the Clarksburg Mission in Clarksburg, WV, said, “is getting here in the morning, finding people clustered around and having to tell them, ‘You’ve gotta go.’” The mission offers emergency shelter to up to 50 people a night. It also offers services and support for those in recovery from drug addiction. The facility went into lockdown in March to protect its residents from contracting and potentially spreading COVID-19. “It’s awful,” Ortenzio said of the need to turn people away, “but I’ve got to protect the folks who are here.” The mission has provided a few tents, but far more assistance is needed. “I don’t know where to tell them to go.”

Harrison County, of which Clarksburg is the county seat, has been vexed by homelessness. The county has the second-highest reported per-capita homeless population in the state. To date, there’s been no coordinated response to address it. But on an April weekend, a group of volunteers with the Harrison Co. Task Team on Homelessness began a process they hope is the first step toward a long-term solution. Equipped with a COVID-19 screening tool developed by the West Virginia Coalition to End Homelessness, they hit the streets to assess and prioritize needs and began placing people in a local motel, with funding provided by the coalition and the United Way of Harrison County. The next step is securing more permanent housing. Rexroad is a longtime advocate for her community’s homeless residents. She hopes that out of the COVID-19 crisis the community will pull together in pursuing a solution.

Across West Virginia, advocates for the homeless are mobilizing. It’s been more than a month of “really chaotic contingency planning,” said Zach Brown, CEO of the WV Coalition to End Homelessness. The coalition has been focused on two primary objectives: ensuring that homeless shelters have the supplies they need to guard the safety of those within their walls and working with communities to keep people who are living in encampments in place and safe. “It’s definitely not the time to be razing or disbanding encampments,” Brown said, “because you run the risk of scattering those people to the wind.” Meanwhile, the task team in Clarksburg is taking action to get some people off the streets and into a safer environment. Priority for being moved into one of the motel rooms that have been made available is being given to those with psychiatric issues, those with chronic health issues, and anyone over 55. Rexroad began to arrange housing-focused case management.

These most immediate measures are steps in a longer-term solution Rexroad and members of the task team have been working on for nearly a year, long before COVID-19 was a threat to their Appalachian community. Rexroad and her team had mapped a multifaceted plan to create a housing-first program, placing people in housing then providing them with mental health, substance misuse, or other supports as needed, linked to already-existing county services.
- But when the coronavirus arrived in WV, and Harrison Co. was deemed a hot spot for community spread, the plan accelerated. The team requested $5,000 from the County Commission to help finance the project for the next 30 days. If approved, equal funding would be provided by the commission, United Way and the WV Coalition to End Homelessness. As a model of an effective communitywide response to homelessness in a time of crisis, Clarksburg advocates looked to the city of Morgantown. Rachel Coen, chief of the WV Coalition to End Homelessness said that the people of Morgantown, which already had a housing-first program in place, have really stepped up since the outbreak of COVID-19.

Rexroad hopes that out of this crisis will come an awareness “that we have major gaps in our system, and maybe give us an opportunity to educate folks about what addressing this in an effective manner looks like. We have not had that opportunity yet.”...https://www.yesmagazine.org/economy/2020/06/03/coronavirus-ending-homelessness-west-virginia/

- This article was originally published by 100 Days in Appalachia, with support from the One Foundation. It has been published here with permission. © 2020 YES! MAGAZINE, 284 Madrona Way NE, Ste 116, Bainbridge Island, WA 98110

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