When our neighbors are safer, healthier and happier, so are we. Similar to proving a negative, Covenant House’s crucial work of prevention is often invisible, yet no less important — and perhaps the most meaningful of all.
According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, there are about 1,243 people living on the streets in West Virginia. Despite the reports to the contrary, 90 percent are West Virginians displaced by our changing — even collapsing — economies, mostly from the Southern coalfields, affected by our drug epidemic or experiencing long-term trauma and untreated mental health issues.
While homelessness in the United States declined about 15 percent between 2007 and 2018, homelessness in West Virginia decreased 48 percent during this same period. In 2018 alone, Covenant House prevented 2,215 people from experiencing homelessness by providing critical housing and utility assistance.
When one walks in the downtown areas of our cities and towns, it might not look or feel like homelessness is on the decline, but this is what our data and daily experience tells us. The most significant advances in West Virginia have been among people experiencing chronic homelessness and veterans experiencing homelessness.
That said, we do not yet feel the full impact of the next wave of homelessness — the minimum-wage worker spending 50 percent to 80 percent of household income on rent. There is nowhere in this country where one can live on the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. Minimum wage in West Virginia is $8.75 per hour, yet the housing market and cost of living require a wage something closer to $15 per hour for a sustainable lifestyle.
We want our public to know we are putting forth every resource available to prevent homelessness. Covenant House began as a drop-in center 38 years ago for people experiencing homelessness; we have evolved — and our services have expanded — to better respond to this additional need for homelessness prevention within our community. Our comprehensive response addresses pathways to homelessness, such as the high cost of housing, income inequality, family breakdowns and serious health issues, including addiction.
Because of these emerging needs, we renamed the drop-in center the Service Center, to better reflect the broad spectrum of our response to the needs of our most vulnerable neighbors.
The Service Center offers many invaluable services to those most vulnerable to homelessness — those suffering from extreme poverty. Among these services are access to laundry and showering facilities, emergency assistance with utility payments, vouchers for food, clothing and diapers, HIV screenings, referrals to employment, education and counseling services, and on-site health care and job search help.
The Service Center also strives to provide individuals with opportunities to volunteer and become more active members of the community.
One may be astonished to learn that something as simple as providing several days’ worth of groceries for a family will allow them to reallocate $100 of their income toward rent. It is in this vein that the Covenant House food pantry — hosted and supported by the First Presbyterian Church — assisted over 11,800 hardworking citizens in 2018. We are on track to help another 11,000 this year. The Service Center will also save local residents thousands of dollars in laundry fees by providing access to free washers and dryers.
Notably, of the 157 or more who visit the Service Center every day, 90 percent are West Virginians. Covenant House’s preventative work maintains leases with more than two-dozen local landowners that currently provide permanent housing for 54 once-chronically homeless individuals. Formerly having experienced homelessness for more than a year, many now have remained stably housed for several years.
West Virginia Heath Right has made a significant and long-term investment in outreach “street medicine” by bringing low-barrier and easy access to health care to our community’s most vulnerable population through the Service Center at Covenant House. In addition to basic medical care, West Virginia Health Right provides harm reduction, HIV and HCV testing, behavioral health, pharmaceutical services, and addiction and recovery care.
A crucial resource for West Virginians who are facing nearly insurmountable pressures, Covenant House’s Service Center functions as a safety net for our entire community.
By seeking to ensure the health and safety of our community’s most vulnerable, and by giving them accessible ways to make positive contributions of their own, the Service Center benefits all of us. Because, when our neighbors are safer, healthier and happier, so are we.
This is progress we can build upon together.