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Philip Alston UN

Philip Alston (rear right, in tan jacket), the United Nations’ special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, talks with members of civic and advocacy groups during a visit to Charleston Wednesday.

After meeting with representatives from civic and advocacy groups Wednesday, a United Nations expert said he believes the way the government in West Virginia has addressed poverty may be making it worse.

Professor Philip Alston, the UN’s special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, met with more than 30 representatives from organizations across the state during a two-hour session at the Four Points by Sheraton hotel in downtown Charleston.

Alston, an Australia native who has lived in the United States for nearly 20 years, is on a fact-finding trip to investigate the government’s efforts to eliminate poverty. Other stops during the trip include Washington, D.C., California, Alabama, Georgia and Puerto Rico. Wednesday’s discussion had a slew of topics including the state’s opioid epidemic, criminalizing poverty, water and sanitation, women’s health and access to health care.

“I heard a lot of very detailed information about the nonexistence of governmental support for a wide range of populations that are obviously in dire need,” Alston said after the discussion. “That leads me to believe that the poverty rate, which is very high here, is not being addressed by the government in any systematic way, and that a number of the measures taken are both exacerbating it and [are] counterproductive.”

After the meeting, Alston planned to meet with a representative from Gov. Jim Justice’s office. He was also scheduled to visit West Virginia Health Right, a free clinic in Charleston.

Alston said he hoped that meeting with government officials would give him a better picture of poverty in the state.

“At this stage, things don’t look very good,” Alston said.

Organizations represented at the meeting ranged from the American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia to WV Free, Volunteer West Virginia, West Virginia Health Right, the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, Legal Aid of West Virginia, Mountain State Justice, Reconnecting McDowell, West Virginia University’s Land Use and Sustainable Development Law Clinic and several others.

Speakers touched on the bail system, which WV ACLU director Joseph Cohen said keeps poor people in jails if they can’t afford to pay, panhandling ordinances that advocates said criminalize the act of asking for help, abortion restrictions, and proposed asset tests and work requirements for welfare recipients.

Angie Settle, director and CEO of Health Right, said one huge flaw with the state’s expanded Medicaid program is that it doesn’t cover dental care except in emergency extractions. Settle said some of her clinic’s patients have decaying teeth that haven’t had a cleaning in years. She said access to care for Medicaid recipients is also problematic. Some doctors turn away Medicaid patients in favor of those with commercial insurance, she said.

Kat Garvey, director of WVU’s Land Use and Sustainable Development Law Clinic, talked about the importance of wastewater treatment facilities, something that many in West Virginia don’t have. Garvey said 140 communities in West Virginia don’t have access to adequate waste water treatment.

“One reason for that is just the topography of the state makes it hard to extend sewer lines to small, rural communities,” Garvey said after the meeting. “And with the topography, it’s hard to do septic systems. It’s just an extremely expensive problem because the cost of treatment can be about $40,000 per home.”

The law clinic advocates for continuing funding for traditional infrastructure and to look outside of the country for technologies that may be suited for rural communities.

Joseph Cohen, director of the ACLU, said the discussion with Alston was enlightening.

“I think there’s been a lot of people with incredible knowledge and experience in this state dealing with issues of poverty and I’ve been impressed with the special rapporteur and his staff’s willingness to hear people out,” Cohen said. “I’m really anxious to hear what his findings are from his report.”

Cohen said there’s not one issue that’s more important than others to address.

“The issues that we work on everyday regarding the criminalization of poverty, mass incarceration, the addiction epidemic — they’re crushing to the state,” Cohen said. “But I’ve heard things that we don’t work with everyday. I don’t know a lot about the water sanitation crisis. These are issues of basic health and survival that people are dealing with every single day in this state.”

Alston’s findings will be highlighted during a news conference Friday at the United Nations Information Center in Washington, D.C. The news conference will be live-streamed. The final report will be available in the spring and will be presented to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva in June.

“The one thing that I hope the special rapporteur would take away ... is that I hope he recognizes that there are real human lives as stake,” Cohen said. “And for so many people in West Virginia, this is not theory. This is their lives, and I think he will [understand this], based on his words.”

Reach Lori Kersey at lori.kersey@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-1240 or follow @LoriKerseyWV on Twitter.

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