By ERIN BECK
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Tonya Vannatter gingerly peeled back a piece of cardboard forming a makeshift wall under a stairway in an alley, and spotted some signs — an empty cigarette pack and some trash left behind.
She shined a light and saw that the flooring was rusted and looked almost ready to collapse. Through holes in the ground, you could see black, empty space below.
“It’s changed since yesterday,” she said, a sign that a homeless person had slept there.
Vannetter is also a board member of the Kanawha Valley Collective, the area’s HUD-funded homeless assistance and prevention network.
Tuesday, volunteers scoured the city for areas homeless people normally sleep. Wednesday morning, they checked abandoned homes and alleyways, parking garages and elevators, tent encampments and other areas in search of Charleston’s homeless population. Similar counts took place in St. Albans and South Charleston.
Between about 5:30 a.m. and 6 a.m., one group found out about ten people — some in front of storefronts — sleeping outdoors, in temperatures in the mid-30s.
“And this is one of the warmer counts we’ve done,” said Traci Strickland, director of homeless programs at Prestera.
One woman, sleeping in front of a downtown business, packed up her shopping cart and left when volunteers arrived at about 6 a.m. Down the street, two men they had spoken to earlier walked by. One carried a garbage bag of belongings, and one had a hospital towel draped over his head.
About 15 volunteers found 24 unsheltered people in Charleston during the early morning hours. Local service providers, including shelters and Manna Meal, also sent in estimates.
Last year, 320 homeless people were counted in the four counties covered by the Kanawha Valley Collective — Kanawha, Clay, Putnam and Boone. That includes 32 unsheltered.
“We’re housing a lot more people now than we did two to three years ago,” Strickland said, “but homelessness is fluid.”
Every year, the Kanawha Valley Collective participates in a HUD-required count of the homeless in the area. It’s called a “point in time” count, because HUD wants only a snapshot of a given timeframe. HUD requires that its Continuum of Care networks, such as the Kanawha Valley Collective, complete the survey at least once every two years.
It’s not a long-range study or survey. But it does give those who work with the homeless some idea. In some cases, volunteers also refer the homeless to other services.
It also affects their funding. It used to be that areas with more homeless counted received more funds, according to Strickland.
“Now, they want to know if there’s a decrease, and if there’s a decrease why there’s a decrease,” she said, “and if there’s not a decrease, why there’s not a decrease.”
Surveys were planned in most of the other counties in the state for Wednesday afternoon and evening, according to Rachael Coen, project specialist with the West Virginia Coalition to End Homelessness. The Cabell-Huntington-Wayne Collective of Care and the Wheeling/Weirton Coalition to End Homelessness were also partipating, she said.
The West Virginia Coalition Against Homelessness covers 44 counties, and Coen said she believed 37 were participating.
In 2016 in the 44 counties it covers, the coalition estimated there were 395 sheltered homeless adults, 40 sheltered homeless youth age 18-24, and 86 sheltered homeless youth under 18. They estimated that 124 of the adults had a serious mental illness, 120 were victims of domestic violence, 98 had substance abuse disorders, 48 were chronically homeless, and 91 were veterans. (These estimates are based on self-reports from the homeless people.)
Also in 2016, they estimated 73 unsheltered adults over age 24, 10 unsheltered adults ages 18-24 and one unsheltered child under age 18. Of those, 21 adults reported a serious mental illness. Another 16 reported substance abuse, 33 reported being chronically homeless, eight reported being victims of domestic violence and eight reported being veterans.
Coen said they are taking a “wait and see” approach when asked how a new HUD director could affect their work. Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon and former presidential candidate, has been nominated to lead the agency.
“We haven’t even had a chance to really talk about it yet,” Coen said.
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During lunch at Manna Meal, a soup kitchen in Charleston, Rev. Kay Albright set up a table with a sign, reading: “If you are homeless and not living in a shelter, please stop by the table.”
One man shook a pill bottle, and told her it was not what he needed. He told her he had seizures, and shook an empty pill bottle he said he needed instead. She said she might be able to use money from petty cash.
One man had desperation in his eyes. He said his wallet had been stolen, and he needed an ID to be able to get to a job waiting for him out west. She named a couple of churches that might be able to help. His face fell, but he said thanks.
One man needed a toboggan and a blanket.
But most just gave her the information she asked for.
She only had a few questions: Are you homeless? How long? Did anyone wake you up and count you this morning? Are you of Hispanic origin? First name’s fine.
About 20 people, mostly men, said they were homeless between about 11 a.m. and 12 p.m.
For four and a half years. Six months. Since Tuesday of last week. Sixteen years.
They’d return your smile, then wait expectantly to see what came next.
But that was it.
One man told her that he is not homeless. But he leaned against the wall and spoke for a while anyway, some about how he drives in the weather.
He said “God bless,” as he swung his garbage bag over his shoulder and lined up for a hot meal.
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