Posted: April 20, 2015 at 9:38 pm
By Erin Irwin
“Boston Joe”, a 28-year-old South Boston native, stumbles through downtown High Street in Morgantown at 11 am. Arms riddled with track marks, he slurs his words, nearly collapsing on the sidewalk several times. His mother overdosed on heroin when Joe was only 18 and he came down to Morgantown shortly after.
“I came down here to live with friends but they had nowhere to live either,” said Joe, who asked to be identified only his first name.
Joe is among the hundreds of homeless people who are drawn to Morgantown largely because the city offers services and shelter for the indigent. From 2010 to 2012, the number of people who stayed each year in the Bartlett House, a Morgantown shelter for the homeless, rose from 413 to 644. By 2014, the number was back down to 413 people. But that doesn’t include the homeless who remain out on the streets even in the dead of winter. According to the annual point in time survey conducted on a cold day this past January, there were 32 homeless people sleeping outside in Morgantown.
As these numbers indicate, homelessness remains a major problem in Morgantown despite the concerted efforts of several agencies working in tandem. People are homeless for many reasons, among them mental illness and substance abuse. City officials say the growing epidemic of drug and alcohol abuse in the region is exacerbating the problem, as is the lack of affordable housing in Morgantown.
Indeed, Monongalia County has the highest unmet need for low- income housing of any county in the state. This may be due to the large number of West Virginia University students who take up most of the affordable housing, officials who work with the homeless say.
“The main cause of homelessness is the lack of affordable housing. People just can’t afford to pay for their own housing,” says John Sonnenday, Executive Director for the Coordinating Council on Homelessness, the organization that coordinates the efforts of other local agencies such as Connecting Link, Health Right, the Bartlett House and Caritas House. “The most important thing to do is to house people who have been chronically homeless.”
Sonnenday says that the city would save a lot of money if it built adequate housing for homeless people. That would significantly reduce the money the city currently spends on ambulance, police and shelter costs for the chronically homeless, he says.
“Per person, it would save thousands of dollars a year when you compare the costs of them being out on the streets compared to paying for their housing,” Sonnenday says.
Giving the homeless permanent housing would also make it easier for them to seek treatment for alcohol or drug addiction. Many substance abusers who live in more rural parts of West Virginia come to Morgantown because it has a ready supply of cheap alcohol and drugs. At the same time, it also provides services and shelter for the homeless. But recovery from addiction can be much more difficult without permanent housing, according to officials who work with the homeless.
“Imagine trying to get sober on the street, at the same time you’re worrying about not freezing to death, where you’re going to sleep, are you going to get arrested,” says Amanda Sisson, Assistant Director at West Virginia Coalition to end all Homelessness. “Once those fears are alleviated, it’s much easier to get sober.”
In West Virginia, veterans make up a large chunk of the chronically homeless. Some veterans, who suffer from post traumatic stress disorder, self-medicate themselves by drinking and doing drugs. This cycle of substance abuse eventually causes them to lose their jobs and housing.
“Veterans are more susceptible to being homeless just because of the fact that they deal with a lot of issues like abuse and mental issues,” says Jerry McCarthy, Director of WVU Veterans Affairs.
The Bartlett House is currently housing around 55 people, but it can shelter up to 72 men, women and children. The organization attempts to help each individual with apartment and employment searches and personal and medical needs.
Recently the Bartlett House has made some progress in the fight against homelessness. They’ve built the West Run project, a four-story apartment building. They opened the first two floors of the building, which has 16 apartments filled with people who have previously been homeless. There are also four transitional housing units for families. They will be opening another 36 beds this spring for people who are chronically homeless.
Boston Joe is one person who would benefit from such housing. The day of the interview, he was clearly despondent and seemed almost suicidal. He was on his way to the rail trail, carrying a single can of Four Loko, which contains 12 percent alcohol.
“Sometimes I just want to jump,” said Joe as he wobbled towards the water front. “I’m about to go pass out under the rail trail.”