Charleston updates emergency shelter policy for homeless. It still lags behind other cities.

Homeless in Cold Weather

Homeless in Cold Weather

Sonny Williams sits in Manna Meal’s cafeteria on Tuesday, out of the bitter cold that hit the Mountain State this week. Manna Meal is a soup kitchen in St. John’s Episcopal Church, in Charleston. Williams, one of about 100 people who came for a free meal, said he’d spent the previous night sleeping on the streets. “I was out there when the snow was flying,” he said. “I ain’t got no tent or sleeping bag. I’ve got nothing but the clothes on my back.”

The season’s first snow storm rolled into the area, bringing with it Arctic air as the temperature plummeted overnight.

Lows are expected to drop into the teens early Wednesday morning, but it’s unlikely it will be cold enough for Charleston to open its overnight emergency shelter for people sleeping on the streets.

The city, in collaboration with the Kanawha Valley Collective and nonprofits, offers a single warming shelter — a free place for men and women to come inside on frigid nights — at the Salvation Army on the city’s West Side.

Inside, the volunteer-run operation provides blankets, coffee and food to those who seek shelter. First responders are on hand to check for hypothermia and assess fingers and toes for frostbite. Police are present, too, but officers are prohibited from taking names from those seeking shelter.

“You’re looking at a vulnerable population that’s even more vulnerable because of weather,” Traci Strickland, Kanawha Valley Collective executive director, said.

Mayor Amy Shuler Goodwin ordered the city last month to change its emergency shelter policy to open the center on Tennessee Avenue when the windchill reaches 15 degrees.

Last year, the temperature had to drop to 10 degrees before the center was opened nine times. It served anywhere from 70 to 97 people on those nights, according to Strickland.

In Huntington, its emergency overnight shelter — signaled by a white flag atop the city mission — opens when the temperature dips to 40 degrees, according to Huntington City Mission Executive Director Mitch Webb.

“When that white flag goes up, then people know, no matter what has happened in the past, they can come inside and sleep at the mission,” he said.

Lexington, Kentucky, opens its emergency shelter network when the temperature is expected to fall below 32 degrees. Columbus, Ohio, does the same.

In Pittsburgh, emergency winter shelters are open, regardless of temperature, from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. beginning Nov. 15.

‘We want everyone to be safe’Manna Meal, a soup kitchen in St. John’s Episcopal Church, was crowded Tuesday afternoon as snow lightly fell outside. About 100 men and women sat inside for the free meal.

Sonny Williams, an older man with a thick beard, helped himself to a warm bowl of chili and a grilled cheese sandwich.

He’d spent Monday night sleeping on the streets of Charleston without a sleeping bag or blanket.

“I was out there when the snow was flying,” he said.

Williams was wearing what he’d had on the night before: a sweater and two jackets. He had a pair of gloves next to him.

“I ain’t got no tent or sleeping bag,” he said. “I’ve got nothing but the clothes on my back.”

George Lively, a case manager helping homeless veterans through the Roark-Sullivan Lifeway Center, was inside Manna Meal on Tuesday. A former outreach worker in Charleston, he knew many of the faces around the room.

He estimated that well over half of the people at the soup kitchen had slept outside Monday night.

Had the city’s warming shelter been open, he said, many of the people — including those who typically resist shelters because of group settings or rules — would have gone inside.

“When it gets really, really cold, that’s when most people are more amenable to going inside a shelter,” Lively said. “You can die.”

This is the third year Charleston will offer an emergency warming shelter. Lively said he thinks the emergency warming center should open when it’s 32 degrees in Charleston.

Goodwin said she’s receptive to opening it before it reaches 15 degrees.

“We want everybody to be safe,” Goodwin said. “I think, if we have a need, we’ll open it.”

Strickland said local nonprofits have discussed opening the emergency shelter at a higher temperature.

“I know many of us would like to have the [temperature] higher. It’s just figuring out how we would run it,” Strickland said.

“There is no excuse for anyone freezing to death on our streets. I find that unacceptable.”

In January, a 63-year-old homeless woman was found dead outside of YWCA Sojourner’s Shelter for women and families. The Charleston Police Department said the woman died from a medical-related issue.

Ellen Allen, who oversees the Covenant House day shelter, emphasized that winter can be an especially dangerous time for men and women living on the streets.

“Many of them have chronic asthma and bronchitis. Dehydration and frostbite are an issue, and worst-case is hypothermia,” she said. “It’s always a big concern.”

Shelters regularly full year-round

The beds are regularly full at Charleston’s Roark-Sullivan shelter for men and Sojourner’s shelter for women and families, staff members said, even though homelessness is on a decline in the city.

The last annual count of Charleston’s homeless population, in 2018, showed 317 homeless men and women.

“The beds stay full 98 to 100 percent of the time. When individuals can’t get a bed, we put them on overflow,” John Thompson, executive director at Roark-Sullivan, said. “That can be several blankets on the floor and a blanket to cover up with, to at least keep them out of the cold.”

The shelter on Leon Sullivan Way has 60 beds. Thompson said people who appear intoxicated or under the influence of drugs may sleep there, but alcohol and drugs are prohibited on the property.

The shelter uses its designated overflow area nearly every day of the year, regardless of weather.

Women are prohibited in the men’s shelter, but when dangerous cold weather comes in, Thomson said, the shelter permits women to sleep in the lobby on the other side of a locked door.

Margaret Taylor, who oversees the Sojourner’s shelter, said there have been times when they’ve used a utility closet to give someone a warm place to stay.

The shelter can house more than 75 people and has room for nine to 12 additional beds in an overflow area. Right now, there are 72 people staying in the shelter. Fifteen of them are children.

“We average the same amount of individuals, whether it’s winter or summer,” Taylor said. “The need seems to be constant.”

Thompson noted that, despite nonprofits’ efforts, it isn’t always easy to get people inside traditional shelters, even in the winter. Couples don’t want to separate, he said.

Others fear the police presence, Strickland said, or they’re worried their things will be stolen.

“When you have a warming station open, that means it’s bitterly cold. When you’re talking to someone and they refuse to come inside for whatever reason, it is devastating,” she said.

How to help: sleeping bags

Here are the best ways you can help people in the city experiencing homelessness this winter, according to nonprofit leaders:

  • Sleeping bags, a major need, may be donated to Covenant House and St. Mark’s Episcopal Church;
  • Drop off coats at the city’s shelters;
  • Volunteers are needed for three shifts at the overnight warming shelter. Contact Kanawha Valley Collective at 304-346-6638 for more information.

Amelia Ferrell Knisely is a corps member with Report for America, an initiative

of The GroundTruth Project. Reach her at, 304-348-4886 or follow

@ameliaknisely on Twitter.

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