Thursday, July 18, 2024

New report helps shine light on unhoused population in West Virginia

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CHARLESTON — Calling it the first comprehensive study on homelessness in the State of West Virginia, the Department of Human Services released a new report highlighting demographics of the unhoused.

DoHS’ Bureau for Behavioral Health released its “Assessment of West Virginia Homeless Population” Monday afternoon. The report was required with the passage of Senate Bill 239 in 2023, requiring the commissioner of Bureau for Behavioral Health to engage certain providers and leaders to study the homeless demographic.

According to a summary of the 169-page report, 58% of the unhoused population who participated in the survey self-identified as male, with 13% self-identifying as Black or African American. That number is higher than the 3.7% of Black West Virginia residents according to the latest U.S. Census numbers.

The average age of the unhoused in the state ranged from age 25 to age 44. While the state’s substance use disorder crisis and opioid addiction feeds into West Virginia’s unhoused numbers, the report highlighted other issues. These include individuals released from state incarceration, a lack of affordable housing, and those either unemployed or no longer looking for work.

According to the report, unhoused communities are mostly concentrated near major cities, mostly due to the availability of services many cities and non-profit organizations offer. Despite stereotypes, the report found the majority of the unhoused are native West Virginians who have been in the state long-term. Others have moved to West Virginia due to the availability of services, family in the state, or other personal relationships.

Dr. William Mercer is the founder of Project HOPE, which works with medical providers in the Ohio Valley to offer health services to the unhoused community in Wheeling and the surrounding area. He said the report reaffirms the need for state support for mitigating issues facing the unhoused.

“It wasn’t too surprising,” Mercer said. “I’m certainly glad this came out. It highlights what we’re dealing with. I’m glad that other people are looking at this.

“I think maybe one thing at the top of the list would be unaffordable housing. I think that’s one of the biggest things right now. Obviously, we are seeing the addiction and mental health issues. It’s just kind of overwhelming, which shows that we do need more mental health facilities and people to kind of help treat this.”

Wheeling is in the process of working towards a managed homeless camp, which would be exempt from the city’s ban on homeless encampments. The current exempted camp is located in East Wheeling. Mercer said more than 40 representatives of multiple groups who provide resources to the unhoused met last month to work on joint efforts to help the unhoused in the region.

Mercer said the big issue right now is the record-breaking heat hitting the U.S. and West Virginia and making sure the unhoused have access to water. Some unhoused individuals have been bathing in a nearby creek to stay cool. Mercer said the exempt camp now has access to a water buffalo mobile water supply.

“I just left our camp, and the highlight of the day is bringing them bottled water and Ziegenfelder popsicles,” Mercer said. “We’re a medical unit, our Project HOPE, so we deal more with the medical issues and we’re seeing a lot with the heat. We try to educate what heat exhaustion is, what heat stroke is, what are the symptoms, and try to hydrate.”

Mercer said he hopes that the data in the new report will help encourage the West Virginia Legislature to provide more funding to mitigate issues facing the unhoused, such as mental health and access to affordable housing.

“I’m hoping that this brings to light that there’s definitely a need so that maybe some money would be a little easier to get for what we think is needed,” Mercer said.



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