Harrison County volunteers put a human face on homelessness

By By Erin Beck
Staff writer

In Harrison County last week, dozens of volunteers combed the streets, walked along the railroad tracks, searched abandoned houses and left notes on sleeping bags and by campfires.

The Homes for Harrison County volunteer group was holding its second Registry Week, in an attempt to put a face and name to each homeless person in the county.

On a January night, about 2,240 homeless people were living in West Virginia, according to a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development report.

Zach Brown, executive director of the West Virginia Coalition to End Homelessness, said Registry Week is similar to the Point in Time survey, a federally mandated count of the homeless for those communities that seek HUD Continuum of Care funding.

Rather than only counting the homeless, though, Registry Week involves finding out each person’s story, as well.

“It’s kind of like the Point in Time survey on steroids,” Brown said.

Volunteers conducted the survey from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m, three days this week. They also left invitations at homeless campsites to a neighborhood block party on Friday.

Volunteers asked questions about everything from family and medical history to if a person had ever been assaulted, in an effort to find out how likely that person is to die on the street.

Once names, photographs and histories are compiled, volunteers will work to match each homeless person with an agency or nonprofit group that can help, with the most vulnerable people receiving first priority.

Homes for Harrison County is an offshoot of the 100,000 Homes campaign, a national effort that surpassed its goal to put 100,000 homeless people in permanent homes by July 2014.

Groups from across West Virginia and the rest of the country participated in Registry Week in January.

Melinda Bibbee, supportive housing coordinator at the Louis A. Johnson VA Medical Center in Charleston, said that, so far, the Harrison County group has housed about one-third of the approximately 90 homeless people who were counted in January.

After placement, each person is matched with a volunteer as part of the group’s “neighbor” program.

Volunteers regularly check in with the recently housed and help them get used to maintaining a home and build the skills they’ll need to keep it.

That could mean helping them budget, encouraging them to stay sober or linking them to other community programs.

Bibbee said that by coming to the homeless, rather than waiting for the homeless to ask for help, volunteers hoped to find the most vulnerable people.

“One of the guys we found, it was over 15 years he had been homeless,” Bibbee said. “He didn’t know how to go about getting the services. He just lived on the streets. He has been placed, and he is now maintaining his housing.”

Harrison County’s team plans another Registry Week, to find people who might have been temporarily housed by churches or other community members, in the sub-zero temperatures in January.

Volunteer Renee McFarland said the people she spoke to last week were often guarded, at first.

“One gentleman ­— the first thing he said when we walked up was ‘I don’t deal well with people,’” she said. “‘I don’t want you here.’ We just tried to be soothing and, within about five minutes or so of asking questions, he had tears. He had smiles. We hugged goodbye. It’s a very emotional process on their end.”

Two other homeless people she spoke to also initially said they didn’t want to participate.

“At first, when we told them what we were there for, they immediately said they were not homeless,” she said. “They were not interested. As we were talking about what we were doing, they remembered reading about it in the newspaper in January. They’d heard about how it’s worked, then they decided to kind of open up.

“One man did the survey, and he had been homeless for many decades. He couldn’t even remember how long. As we began to talk and lighten up the mood and let him know we cared, the other gentleman said, ‘I live in a house, but it has no water and no electric and no gas.’ Basically, he was saying he was living in an abandoned home. So he wanted to be surveyed.”

McFarland said she appreciated seeing volunteers of all ages out refusing to ignore the problem of homelessness any longer.

She admits that she, too, didn’t understand the depth of the problem until about four years ago.

McFarland now works at the Clarksburg Mission, a homeless shelter, but was homeless for about 14 months.

To her, the group’s mission is about more than putting roofs over people’s heads.

“I’m passionate about ending homelessness, because I feel like it goes beyond not having a home,” she said. “It can often become hopelessness, and I don’t want any human being to feel hopeless.”

Reach Erin Beck at erin.beck@wvgazette.com, 304-348-5163 or follow @erinbeckwv on Twitter.

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