COVID-19 has forced Lou Ortenzio to assume a new role.

“My new job,” Ortenzio, executive director of the Clarksburg Mission in Clarksburg, West Virginia, said, “is getting here in the morning, finding people clustered around and having to tell them, ‘You’ve gotta go.’” 

The mission offers emergency shelter to up to 50 people a night and has a dorm for men and another for women and children, each of which can accommodate about 20. It also offers services and support for those in recovery from drug addiction. The facility went into lockdown in March to protect its residents from contracting and potentially spreading COVID-19.

“It’s awful,” Ortenzio said of the need to turn people away, “but I’ve got to protect the folks who are here.” The mission has provided a few tents, but far more assistance is needed. “I don’t know where to tell them to go.”

Harrison County, of which Clarksburg is the county seat, has been vexed by homelessness. The county has the second-highest reported per-capita homeless population in the state. To date, there’s been no coordinated response to address it. 

But on an April weekend, a group of volunteers with the Harrison County Task Team on Homelessness began a process they hope is the first step toward a long-term solution. 

Marissa Rexroad, pictured here in 2019 when she was still a member of the Clarksburg Mission’s staff, is leading the charge to house people experiencing homelessness in Clarksburg during the COVID-19 outbreak. Photo: Jesse Wright/100 Days in Appalachia

Equipped with a COVID-19 screening tool developed by the West Virginia Coalition to End Homelessness, they hit the streets to assess and prioritize needs and began placing people in a local motel, with funding provided by the coalition and the United Way of Harrison County. The next step is securing more permanent housing.

“We’ve had a lot of stumbling blocks along the way,” said Marissa Rexroad of past efforts to address homelessness in Harrison County. Rexroad is a longtime advocate for her community’s homeless residents, a former employee of the Clarksburg Mission and an organizer of this new initiative. She hopes that out of the COVID-19 crisis the community will pull together in pursuing a solution. 

Step by Step

Across the state of West Virginia, advocates for the homeless are mobilizing.

It’s been more than a month of “really chaotic contingency planning,” said Zach Brown, CEO of the West Virginia Coalition to End Homelessness. The coalition has been focused on two primary objectives: ensuring that homeless shelters have the supplies they need to guard the safety of those within their walls and working with communities to keep people who are living in encampments in place and safe. 

“It’s definitely not the time to be razing or disbanding encampments,” Brown said, “because you run the risk of scattering those people to the wind.” Keeping the encampments intact, he said, makes it easier to get information out about safety precautions, and the camps serve as a central location for portable hygiene facilities and food drops. 

Meanwhile, the task team in Clarksburg is taking action to get some people off the streets and into a safer environment. Over the weekend of April 18-19, they assessed the needs of about 20, the majority of whom have been living in abandoned buildings. 

Priority for being moved into one of the motel rooms that have been made available is being given to those with psychiatric issues that prevent them from properly caring for themselves, those with chronic health issues and anyone over the age of 55. People began moving into the rooms that Sunday. Rexroad then began to arrange housing-focused case management.

“A big piece that we’ve been missing in Harrison County,” she said, “is a local street outreach provider who’s linked to housing.” Task team members are stepping in to provide that service.

The task team will continue to provide case management by phone and will be checking in with folks daily to ensure they have what they need. For some, the solution will be permanent supportive housing made available through the Clarksburg-Harrison Regional Housing Authority. For others, it might be assistance with a deposit and first month’s rent on an apartment and linkage to social services that can help them gain firmer footing.

These most immediate measures are steps in a longer-term solution Rexroad and members of the task team have been working on for nearly a year, long before COVID-19 was a threat to their Appalachian community. 

Rexroad and her team had mapped a multifaceted plan to create a housing-first program, placing people in housing then providing them with mental-health, substance-misuse or other supports as needed, linking already-existing services in the county in a more organized context. 

Photo: Jesse Wright/100 Days in Appalachia

But when coronavirus arrived in West Virginia, and Harrison County was deemed a hotspot for community spread, the plan accelerated. The most immediate priority, said Rexroad, who is also the United Way of Harrison County’s housing and communications director, is to help protect the community from the advance of COVID-19; secondly, “to begin building relationships with those on the street and begin the process of getting them into the appropriate program and helping them to stabilize” for the long term.

“I think we’ll start to see our community become more understanding as they see that [homelessness] can be effectively addressed,” she said. 

The task team requested $5,000 from the Harrison County Commission to help finance the project for the next 30 days. If approved, equal funding would be provided by the commission, the United Way and the West Virginia Coalition to End Homelessness.

At its Tuesday, April 21, meeting, the commission tabled the request and asked for additional information. 

Commissioner Patsy Trecost recognizes the funding as only a first step. Sometimes, he said, “you have to throw a Band-Aid on as a temporary solution when you know you really need stitches.” 

“I am on board with the $5,000 allocation to give to the United Way, as a nonprofit organization, to do what they want with it, and move forward with the housing,” he said. 

Guidance from Up the Road

For a model of an effective community-wide response to homelessness in a time of crisis, Clarksburg advocates looked 40 miles up the highway to the city of Morgantown.

Rachel Coen, the West Virginia Coalition to End Homelessness’s chief program officer, said that the people of Morgantown, which already had a housing-first program in place, have really stepped up since the outbreak of COVID-19.

“This has brought everybody together in a way that they’re very much relying on one another,” she said. “Everybody’s moved forward in a way I’ve never seen before.” 

Support, Coen said, has come from, among others, the county commission, the health department, the police and EMS, the hospitals, the United Way and Bartlett Housing Solutions, which provides supportive services locally to those in need of a home. 

Keri DeMasi, Bartlett’s executive director, said that her staff “pulled the trigger very, very quickly, a little bit ahead of the curve” in addressing the coronavirus outbreak in Morgantown, providing their clients with information on proper sanitation, distancing and the availability of resources. “We know our clients and we know their vulnerability.” 

The staff is now making certain that those they serve are receiving meals and medications; they’re getting them to necessary doctor’s appointments and coordinating virtual support services. They also have a Facebook group to circulate information. For more than a month, Bartlett staff has been taking the temperature of everyone they serve at their emergency shelter. “My favorite part of the day,” DeMasi said, “is when I see that all temperatures are normal.” 

“This community has just been unbelievably responsive,” she said. “Not just the other agencies in this community but the citizens.” For example: She posted a request for Easter baskets, and within an hour the need was met. 

Filling the Gaps

Zach Brown said that, as of last week, to his knowledge there had been no confirmed cases of COVID-19 among those being housed in emergency and temporary shelters in the state. 

At the Clarksburg Mission, the staff is taking every precaution to protect their residents and the broader community. They’re taking in no new residents; those within are closely monitored.

Not everyone is able to cope; many can’t take the close quarters and careful scrutiny. “If people wander away, if they’re AWOL, then they’re asked not to come back,” Lou Ortenzio said.

The Clarksburg Mission, in North Central West Virginia, is a faith-based emergency shelter that has expanded in recent years to serve the needs of a community hit hard by the opioid epidemic. It now offers sober living dorms for men and women, emergency beds for veterans and a sober living home, in addition to its support programs for people in recovery. Photo: Jesse Wright/100 Days in Appalachia

Marissa Rexroad is hopeful that out of this crisis will come an awareness “that we have major gaps in our system, and maybe give us an opportunity to educate folks about what addressing this in an effective manner looks like. We have not had that opportunity yet.” 

“When you have a crisis like this,” Brown said, “you sort of hope the better angels of people’s nature are gonna rise to the top and things like the bureaucracy or politics or moral viewpoints of homelessness are just gonna go away, and we all come together and work toward one solution.”

“All it takes is all of us,” Ortenzio said. “That’s what we say. It really takes an effort of the entire community to try to solve the disconnection problems that we have and the isolation that folks suffer.”

This article was produced with support from the One Foundation.

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