John David: Living the American nightmare in Appalachia (Opinion)

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People know well that, to avoid COVID-19, they have been prescribed home confinement and ordered to work from home. Lately, in a frantic effort to mitigate the shattered economic impact, this has been relaxed to advising that it is “safer at home.”

Working from home assumes that choice is possible. According to a Federal Reserve survey reported in The Wall Street Journal, only 20% of those limited to a high school diploma could work from home — and West Virginia leads the nation with those who only have a high school diploma.

It also assumes that housing is in adequate condition for “working at home” to happen. In addition, stores and firms that employ high school graduates are permanently closing. The Journal noted that “makers of dishware in North Carolina, furniture foam in Oregon and cutting boards in Michigan are among the companies closing factories in recent weeks.”

Housing in Appalachia has long been a problem. Appalachia is a special place, where many working people were once relegated to company-built single-wall crates, called “Jenny Linds,” up isolated hollers adjacent to former coal mines or rail operations. They were never intended to last for more than 100 years and comply with today’s standards for heating, electricity, plumbing, energy efficiency, internet, safety and space.

Vickie Smith, construction manager for the Southern Appalachian Labor School, has witnessed dirt floors, prevalent mold and floors covered only with a few walking planks in her construction encounters. These houses were sold by exiting companies for a song and, to this day, still dominate the coal camp housing scene. They are now usually occupied by low-income families, including seniors, disabled coal miners and those in need of affordable housing.

According to the Housing Assistance Council, a SALS umbrella organization that analyzed Census Bureau data, many of those homes do not even have running water, a situation that fosters respiratory illness and makes any advice to “wash your hands often” go unheeded.

For more than 40 years, the Federation of Appalachian Housing Enterprises and its members have been trying to address inadequate housing in Appalachia. The challenges are overwhelming. For example, a study of conditions in West Virginia, the only state wholly within Appalachia, revealed:

  • The State’s housing problem is a substantial lack of affordable, decent, safe and sanitary housing for the increasing numbers of low- and very low-income families, elderly people and those with special needs.
  • Of the 688,557 households in West Virginia, approximately 171,618 (24.9%) have a total household income below 50% of the state median income and are classified as very low-income.
  • Of the 92,738 vacant housing units, 67% (61,205) are not available to the housing market because of the units’ deteriorated conditions.
  • Because of the long-term economic instability of the state, affordability of “decent, safe and sanitary” housing continues to be a substantial problem for 47.7% of West Virginia households that fall below 95% of the median household income.

Ironically, resolving these problems has been significantly hindered by bureaucratic red tape and agency vendettas against entities that have accomplished results and made a difference.

As a result, many have been forced to unnecessarily shut down or significantly curtail activities.

Matters have been made worse in the Appalachian coalfields by recent disasters, such as flooding, which reduced the stock of Jenny Lind housing for low-income families. As a result, overcrowding frequently exists in remaining units, thereby compromising availability of focused, home-based educational services for children, as well as the necessity for social distancing.

In fact, the implementation of virtual-based alternative education is extraordinarily difficult because of limited study space and broadband access, as evidenced by SALS as it struggles to provide educational content for children during the summer months and upcoming academic year.

Educational attainment in the area served by SALS is already alarmingly low, dipping to 27% proficiency in math and 37% in reading, according to reported data.

SALS also is overwhelmed by those needing home rehabilitation and repairs, particularly for disabled occupants and veterans who need electrical upgrades for breathing equipment, handicap bathroom fixtures and widened doorways for wheelchairs. This year, SALS was expecting nearly 1,000 volunteers to help, but travel restrictions and out-of-state quarantines have canceled the availability of that labor force.

Another issue is the increase in domestic violence caused by continual crowding. Brenda Warrick, the coordinator of a SALS apartment complex, has noticed a spike in referrals from women’s resource centers.

An additional major looming threat is the likelihood of a massive increase in bankruptcies that will result in people losing their homes or being evicted.

SALS has a counseling program called “Protecting the Family Home” that is designed to help people avoid scams and pitfalls, but even that program faces a lack of funding for adequate implementation. The consequence will be more people relegated to homeless shelters, nursing homes and personal-care facilities, all known as breeding grounds for virus contamination.

Appalachia has been called a special place, often in reference to its cultural distinctiveness, beauty and God-fearing people. But, lately, it is hurting — and hurting bad — for many reasons.

Without options to survive and obtain overdue massive support for adequate housing, the people in Appalachia face a cruel winter, as well as a bleak future for life and living the American Dream.

John David is a Gazette-Mail

contributing columnist.

Funerals for Monday, July 13, 2020

Alford, Virginia - 11 a.m., Apple Grove Memorial Gardens.

Gibson, Harold - 1 p.m., Fidler & Frame Funeral Home, Belle.

Humphreys Sr., Randall - 2:30 p.m., Ward Road Cemetery, Nettie.

Jackson, Shirley - 1 p.m., Bollinger Funeral Home, Charleston.

Laudermilt, Darlene - 7 p.m., Foglesong - Casto Funeral Home, Mason.

Nichols, Sharon - 1 p.m., Keller Funeral Home, Dunbar.

Sammons, Anthony - 2 p.m., Handley Funeral Home, Danville.

Tucker, Denver - 3 p.m., Rayne Funeral Home, Eleanor Chapel.