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Harrison homes campaign looks after homeless

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Photo courtesy of the United Way of Harrison County Photo courtesy of the United Way of Harrison County

For The State Journal

At 2:30 a.m. on stretches of this winter, Steve Goff and his wife, Beth Allen, awoke, bundled up and went looking for homeless people around the Anmoore area of Harrison County.

They were two of the 60 volunteers trained to ask homeless people their ages and questions about chronic diseases and mental health, how many times they go to the emergency room and if they've had frostbite or hypothermia, among other things. 

The data the pair gathered is helping identify people at risk of dying on the streets in the next six months. The 100,000 Homes Campaign in Harrison County will move those people into housing.

 "The goal is to consistently move 2.5 percent of the community's medically vulnerable and chronically homeless neighbors into permanent housing each month," said Rhonda L. Lindsey, Section 8 and Homeownership Program manager at the Clarksburg-Harrison Housing Authority. 

The street count of homeless people took place Jan. 28-30 to coincide with a nationwide count of unsheltered and sheltered homeless people done to assess needs and to determine resources to prevent and end homelessness.

"If you were out on streets the last week of January, you were probably chronically homeless folks," Goff said. "The problem was the weather was so severe it worked against us for a count because even those people who might have some way to live outdoors in 20- and 30-degree weather had made arrangements to stay indoors on the coldest nights." 

But the project did find people who remained outdoors in the severe weather.

"They found some in the rest stops on I-79. They found people in cars," Goff said. "It seems somebody was sleeping at the Post Office. 

"If we saw a sleeping bag, we dropped a card saying we'd be back tomorrow at this time."

The volunteers found nine people, said Tina Kopp, assistant director of the United Way of Harrison County. And they registered more eligible people who took shelter at the Clarksburg Mission.

The Clarksburg Mission, the United Way of Harrison County, Health Access, the Clarksburg-Harrison Housing Authority, the VA Medical Center and North-Central W.Va. Community Action are the team members leading the 100,000 Homes Campaign in Harrison County.

"It flips the current model of providing housing for people who are ‘housing ready' — those who have jumped through all kind of hoops to qualify," Goff said. "This program identifies the most vulnerable people who happen to be homeless and puts them at the head of the list for housing and then surrounds them with services. 

"A warm bed, a place you can call your own and a door you can lock — this model has been proven nationally to be very successful with getting people to stay in housing and to improve their lives."

Kopp said the program aims to place one to two people per month into homes of their own. The team doesn't decide who's most in need. The data the registry collected is analyzed by a scientific instrument — the Service Prioritization Decision Assistance Tool. The tool ranks the people and then the team members start helping those at the top of the list.

The Housing Authority expects to have 65 housing-ready units available by July, Kopp said. Another registry is scheduled for Aug. 12-14.

"We will basically wrap services around them," Kopp said. 

"They will be connected with a team that will provide whatever services are needed," she said, listing mental health referrals, medical help, food pantry support, group counseling and job training as among the community services that will be available for program participants.

Participants also will be paired with a mentor or sponsor.

"One of the large volunteer groups in our area is called Bikers For Christ and it already has volunteers waiting to be connected with homeless people once they get in a house," Kopp said.

And not much is required for the selected people to keep their homes.

"They really only need to do two things to keep their apartments: be a good neighbor and pay their rent," Kopp said. "Those are things we're going to try to do and help them be and succeed."

Some homeless people have jobs, so having a place to rest, get ready for work and secure their possessions can be a big help for them to keep those jobs. And having an address means others can more easily get benefits to which they are entitled.

The survey revealed that 62 percent of the area's homeless population had been homeless for less than two years, while 31 percent had been without a home for more than two years, Kopp said. Ten percent of those determined to be homeless were veterans, and 68 percent of the homeless were male.

Family issues were found to be the largest cause of homelessness, as 34 percent reported that as being the primary reason. Twenty-two percent reported employment or financial issues as being their reason for homelessness.