Charleston shelter focuses on thousands of West Virginians on verge of homelessness

Charleston homeless shelter renamed Service Center at Covenant House

Staff at Covenant House in Charleston have turned their attention to thousands of people on the verge of homelessness largely due to rent costs.

Covenant House, a day shelter in Charleston for people experiencing homelessness, is turning its attention to families on the verge of losing housing.

In 2018, the nonprofit prevented 2,215 from becoming homeless, according to new data released Wednesday by the organization.

Nine out of 10 people who come to Covenant House for help are from West Virginia, and the majority of those men and women are from Charleston.

Emergency rent and utility assistance, food vouchers and diaper donations are some of the ways Covenant House staff have filled the gaps for vulnerable families living paycheck to paycheck.

Many of the men and women who receive help are employed, according to Covenant House Executive Director Ellen Allen.

“It’s people who are low-income workers with a couple of jobs. At one point, they could cobble [money] together and pay their rent, but now, rent is taking 80 percent of their income,” she said.

West Virginians are now 14 percent more likely to become homeless solely due to the increase in housing costs, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

Allen said her staff is typically able to get people off the streets and into housing, but it’s difficult to keep people in housing long-term because of the ongoing rental costs.

Darryl Henry, a Charleston native, came to Covenant House six years ago while homeless and struggling with drug addiction.

Covenant House initially used a grant to help Henry acquire housing. Now, he’s sober, pays his own rent and works part-time at the day shelter.

“That was a big improvement for me because nobody believed in me,” Henry said. “Now, I’m able to help others because of the help I received. It’s just an awesome life.”

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

Statewide, there are 1,243 people experiencing homelessness; the majority of those people are living in shelters.

While the country’s unsheltered homeless count has ticked up over the last few years, the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development reports West Virginia’s unsheltered homelessness has decreased.

Charleston’s point-in-time numbers also indicated a decrease in unsheltered homelessness, though, Allen noted that homelessness is often under-reported in data collection.

She explained the decreases reflect successful statewide initiatives to house homeless veterans and those who have been homeless for years.

However, Allen emphasized that the recorded decline in homelessness is separate from the rising number of people who are on the verge of becoming homeless.

Keeping vulnerable people in their homes is the best way to end homelessness, Allen said.

“For as many people we help, there’s 10 times as many we don’t have the resources to help,” she added.

The new data from Covenant House also sheds light on homelessness in Charleston:

  • 157 visit the Covenant House daily to access laundry services, shower, health care and other services;
  • 90 percent of the people served are from West Virginia;
  • The majority of people served by Covenant House were living in Charleston or Kanawha County when they became homeless.

Covenant House reports that in 2018 alone, its staff and volunteers assisted 7,685 individuals.

Allen said that the city has been supportive of the nonprofit and its efforts to help those living on the streets.

In 2018, Allen called out the Charleston Police Department for what she described as efforts to “criminalize and publicly shame the homeless” after officers publicized the arrest of 19 people, many of whom were homeless and suffered from mental illnesses.

Charleston police have faced criticism in the past few weeks from clergy and community members following the forceful beating of a woman during an arrest. The woman’s family has said she has special needs.

Allen said her organization now has a “really good relationship” with CPD.

“We haven’t seen anything that makes it seem like they’re criminalizing homelessness,” she said.

At a news conference Wednesday, Allen announced her organization had rebranded as the Service Center at Covenant House to better reflect the myriad of services it offers to people experiencing homelessness and poverty.

Covenant House is located at 600 Shrewsbury St.

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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