Seated near a Christmas tree earlier this winter, Gary Smith was homeless for the first time. His wife had died, he said, and it was hard for him to get by on his own.
At Covenant House on a frigid day, he and dozens of other men were gathered at the day shelter in Charleston to do laundry and get out of the cold.
The 65-year-old Charleston man had been staying in an abandoned house, he said, and people from the city had removed his belongings. He said they told him, “Dress warm, because it’s cold outside.”
“I wasn’t allowed to take anything but what I had on my back,” he said.
Years ago, he picked up trash for the city — “just as mine was four or five days ago,” he said.
Two of the men outside the shelter said the panhandlers they see want money for drugs. One added that many are mistakenly labeled as homeless. One said Covenant House helped him recover from his own addiction.
In interviews with the homeless this winter, inside and outside various shelters, nearly all said they were from West Virginia.
Last spring and summer, Charleston officials reported an influx of “criminal vagrants” into the city and said homeless people were being shipped here from other states. City officials have also said homeless people come to Charleston because there are more services for them here. Mayor Danny Jones has called the city a “mecca” for homeless people.
A police officer estimated in August that 1,000 homeless people had moved into the city. This winter, city officials called that number a “guestimate” and lowered their estimate to several hundred.
Since then, several service providers have said the majority of homeless people in Charleston come from other areas of West Virginia, particularly the southern part of the state, that have fewer resources.
“I think the one thing we tend to forget is that the majority of these individuals resided in the Kanawha Valley, and even though they are homeless now, they are still people of the community,” said Margaret Taylor, of YWCA’s Sojourner’s Shelter for Homeless Women and Families.
Health care and homelessness service providers have also said the drug crisis in West Virginia is contributing to homelessness.
“I have not seen an increase in patients from out of state,” said Angie Settle, CEO of West Virginia Health Right, a Charleston free clinic. “We’ve seen patients from other places in West Virginia.”
“It kind of goes hand in hand with the drug epidemic,” she said. “It’s increased with that.”
Service providers have said in the past that in West Virginia, people who would be on the streets or in shelters tend to move from family member to family member. That’s less true now, according to Settle.
“They burn bridges,” she said.
Settle saw no reason why people from out of state would avoid the free clinic.
“We’re known as very accepting,” she said.
Brenda Parker, who works as a patient navigator at Health Right, said she has noticed more people from economically depressed Southern West Virginia counties.
“They had jobs, and they just don’t have jobs now,” she said. “People say, ‘Well people choose that life because it’s easy.’ No, it’s not easy.”
Zach Brown, executive director of the West Virginia Coalition Against Homelessness, said the substance abuse problem is “definitely having an impact.”
“I’m hesitant to point at it as something increasing homelessness on the whole, but it’s definitely making it more difficult to do our job,” he said.
Traci Strickland, director of homeless services for Prestera Center, also pointed to migration within the state.
“I’m a homeless service provider,” she said. “I would love to tell you we offer the best services in our region for people to come flock to. That is something that is heard in cities across the country.”
Strickland also said some panhandlers likely aren’t homeless.
“You’ve got this intersection of homelessness, poverty and substance abuse,” she said. “There’s places where those cross.
“I live in Charleston. I see what other people see. I also know that — being a homeless service provider — that I have seen people I thought may be homeless, stopped and talked to them, and they were housed.”
John Thompson, program director at Roark-Sullivan Lifeway Center, said more people are coming to the men’s shelter who have problems with opioid abuse. Alcohol abuse was always the bigger problem years ago.
“The majority of the individuals we have always served have been in the Kanawha Valley area,” he said.
He said more people are coming from other southern areas of the state due to addiction.
“That may be resulting in people becoming homeless who otherwise might not have,” he said.
Ellen Allen, executive director of Covenant House, said the nonprofit saw more young people in 2017. Most of them, she said, are coming from rural parts of Kanawha and more rural southern counties.
“It makes sense,” she said. “I came to Charleston for opportunity.”
Among other initiatives to address homelessness, the city of Charleston has started a program to bus homeless people back to where they have support and family ties.
Allen said she has watched buses from the Behavioral Health Pavilion of the Virginias, an affiliate of Princeton Community Hospital, drop off homeless people at Covenant House.
Officials at the Mercer County behavioral health provider denied interview requests, but sent a statement from medical director Dr. Jeff Gee:
“The issue of homelessness in the psychiatric population is a significant challenge in our area, West Virginia, and the Country. There is a huge need and few local resources available. The Behavioral Health Pavilion strives to find the best option for homeless patients under these difficult circumstances; the reality is that there are very few local options available,” Gee said.
“We accept patients from every county in the state of West Virginia and many are homeless with challenging psychiatric needs and symptoms. The closest homeless shelters are hours away and often full. We strive to send the patient back to the area in which they came, when possible. The Behavioral Health Pavilion will continue to work with our patients to find the most appropriate, available option for placement and we will continue to look for new placement options as they become available.”
At Union Mission, a Bluefield nonprofit group that offers a food pantry and temporary stays in hotel rooms for the homeless, Director Craig Hammond said he doesn’t notice people migrating to Charleston.
Union Mission used to offer a shelter but experienced too many problems, Hammond said. He knows of no shelters in Mercer, McDowell or the Virginia counties where the mission operates.
He’s worked there for 40 years. He said he hasn’t noticed an increase in people requesting stays, but he has noticed the population he serves is more likely to be addicted to drugs. He noticed people are more demanding and belligerent. Hotels ask him not to send them back.
“If I could point to one reason, I think it would be the addiction to prescription pain medication,” Hammond said. “God love ’em, when you’re addicted, the cravings are incredible. The desperateness is very sad.”
Homelessness, he said, “needs to be something we discuss and address as a state, because it’s not going to get any better anytime soon.”
Charleston officials and police also said this winter that the drug problem has contributed to an increase in homelessness, and people are coming from the southern coalfields.
“Their parents are done giving to them,” said City Attorney Paul Ellis. “Their friends are done, so now they come to where the drugs are cheap.”
“Some people are coming from the southern coalfields,” added Charleston Police Chief Steve Cooper. “There’s a lot of addictive people in Southern West Virginia. They are migrating here. You can’t blame them because there is shelter, and there is food.”
“And there’s people to rob,” Ellis added.
They said they see the population as two groups — “resident homeless” and those causing problems.
“Homelessness is not a crime, and we don’t consider homeless people to be criminals,” Cooper said. “The people that we consider to be criminals are those who are being arrested, who are committing crimes.”
Earlier this winter, a man froze to death who police said had been drinking vodka on a porch. Several Charleston homeless service providers said people under the influence are able to stay in shelters.
“Our barriers aren’t high, but we do say you can’t use on the property,” said Thompson, of the Roark-Sullivan center. “It’s fine to be under the influence. It’s not something we’re putting up a poster about.”
At Sojourner’s, a staff member offers counseling, and peer recovery coaches offer hope, according to Taylor. Sometimes they call treatment centers to ask about beds for clients, but the facilities are full. The client may change his or her mind by the next day. Taylor would like to see a space that could take clients short-term, until they can be properly placed at a long-term facility.
People in need of shelter can stay at Sojourner’s if they are intoxicated and disruptive, she said. But staff members welcome people to drink some coffee in the foyer or walk it off and come back. They just don’t advertise that.
“I’m sure word of mouth carries the message,” she said.
Charleston spent about $13,000 to send more than 100 people out of the city, the majority to other states, as of early February, according to city records.
“We send them back to their roots,” Cooper said. “We’re not just shipping them to San Francisco or Honolulu.
“We could approach every homeless guy in town and say, ‘Would you like to go to Miami? It’s beautiful there this time of year.’” he added. “If they said yes, we could buy them a ticket and send them. It’s not illegal. It’s just rude to do that to Miami. That would be an easy way for us to sort of eliminate some of the problems we have, but we don’t do it like that.”
Charleston City Council is also expected to consider an ordinance that would require those soliciting for money to obtain a free permit and would prohibit the practice in certain high-traffic areas.
“Eight out of 10 times that I give money to someone asking for money in our city, they’re using at least a portion of it on drugs or alcohol,” Ellis said. “That’s happening because you can’t get drugs and alcohol for free in this city.”
“If we had three or four rehabs around here that were large and equipped with people who know what the hell they’re doing ... you would see 20 to 30 percent of this end,” he added. “In fact, we may have people coming here to get help, but there’s nothing.”
“We’re not equipped to do it,” Cooper said. “I’ll tell you what, the effort’s there. The caring is there.”
As for putting money into housing, Ellis also said, “There’s a majority of folks who don’t want to be housed.”
Brown, of the West Virginia Coalition to End Homelessness, said he’s often criticized for commenting on Charleston’s homeless. His organization helps the homeless in 44 counties, but Kanawha isn’t one of them.
But Brown said he’s watched other cities in the country see their homeless numbers dwindle. The difference, he said, is they’re focusing on what they can provide, instead of what they can’t.
“We’re not drug rehab facilities,” he said. “We’re not masquerading as substance use prevention facilities. We should be focused on housing.”
Cities that are successful aren’t sending people to other places, he said, or “making it illegal to be on the street.” The banter, he said, distracts from the only way to end homelessness.
“Is it drugs?” he said. “Is it employment? The reasons to become homeless are as varied as the differences in people. None of that really matters. The only things that’s going to stop homelessness is housing. Whatever’s going on, nothing gets stabilized until we focus on getting people into housing first.”
Service providers get money from the federal government to put people into housing, but Brown suggested cities can help, too.
“Cities can invest their money and their resources or their time or their help or their efforts in talking to landlords and business folks,” he said.
Brown said the idea that people are choosing to live the “gypsy lifestyle” is “old romantic nonsense.”
“That’s a real easy way to let us all off the hook,” he said.
“What makes someone not want to be around people?” he added. “Something deeper is going on.”
He also said the idea that people are pouring into the state or town is “based on absolute mythology.”
“If we had that many great systems in place, we wouldn’t have homelessness, because we would end it,” he said.
He said he’d like to see Charleston ask service providers and the formerly homeless what keeps people in housing and look at the costs of spending police time arresting the homeless, city workers’ time taking down encampments and treating the homeless in emergency rooms, versus putting money into housing.
He noted Charleston has more resources than most cities in the state.
“That’s the beauty of somewhere the size of Charleston,” he said. “It’s our state capitol. What better place to send a message to the rest of West Virginia, and the rest of the world for that matter, in terms of how to solve this problem?
One cold night outside the Roark-Sullivan men’s shelter, a couple dozen men gathered in the foyer and outside. They get close to you to tell their stories.
Surrounded by piles of clothing — all they owned — several men wanted someone to listen to them talk about the city throwing away their belongings, why they are homeless, bedbugs in local shelters. Some were angry or animated.
But don’t worry, Anna Smith said, “They won’t hurt you.”
One of the few women in the group, Smith, from Logan County, said she was there because the Charleston work release center had matched with her with the grocery store on Bigley Avenue. She said she stays unsheltered because she wants to stay with her boyfriend for safety.
“I finished parole under this bridge,” she said.
Steven “Randy” Tinney, of Nicholas County, said he stays outside because his congestive heart failure keeps him up at night, and shelters set bedtimes.
Tinney said he worked in coal mines for 15 years.
“I’ve been denied disability three times, and I couldn’t afford to live in Richwood no more,” he said.
He said he received no notice before Charleston workers cleared his belongings from a Greenbrier Street encampment, where he stayed to be close to his doctor at Charleston Area Medical Center.
His mom sends him money from Richwood, one of the areas hit hardest by the June 2016 flood.
“Randy, don’t come back here,” she told him. “We don’t even have a grocery store.”