Rev. Matthew Watts walks past Hope Townhouses in Charleston’s West Side. Photo by F. Brian Ferguson

Charleston’s West Side neighborhood runs alongside the Kanawha River, where houses are stacked together between blocks of businesses that have managed to hang on — a hardware store, a popular BBQ joint, a dentist’s office. The community winds into the twisting hills of Edgewood, Charleston’s first suburb, with its historic, opulent homes.

The West Side has character, it has grit. An area of town near the interstate has seen a revitalization with a coffee shop, a vinyl record store and an upscale bridal boutique.

And the community is also home to staggering poverty. 

The West Side’s history of segregation combined with its lack of well-paying jobs, high rates of drug abuse and low-ranked schools make it fertile ground for change.

Black leaders in Charleston thought the city’s West Side was the perfect place to test a program that would really focus on bringing people out of poverty. And, in 2015, they pitched an idea to then-gubernatorial candidate Jim Justice, who was running for his first-ever political office as a Democrat. 

Justice set up a meeting with Black leaders at a church on the West Side, minutes from the state Capitol. 

He needed their support, he said, and he’d make sure to give them something in return.

Charleston’s West Side. Photo by F. Brian Ferguson.

Pastors and nonprofit leaders told Justice they wanted to model how a web of existing nonprofits could come together to address substance abuse, mental health, education and more in the West Side, then replicate the program in other poor West Virginia towns.

Rev. Matthew Watts, a pastor on the West Side and a leader in developing the idea, was in the room.

“The big thing that came out of [the meeting] was Justice said, ‘If I’m elected, and you have an idea that really helps people in West Virginia … I’ll support it,’” Watts recalled.

Rev. Matthew Watts shared how HB 2724 could have transformed the West Side of Charleston and poverty in West Virginia. 

Justice won the governor’s race, and his Democratic administration started working on the anti-poverty bill. Then-Republican House of Delegates Speaker Tim Armstead (R-Kanawha) filed the measure, HB 2724, on behalf of the governor, signaling Justice prioritizing the project, though it didn’t come with any money attached to it.

Del. Tim Miley (D-Harrison. Photo courtesy
West Virginia Legislature

The bill didn’t name explicitly Charleston’s West Side, but lawmakers said they’d known the intent was to pilot it on the West Side. House Minority Leader Tim Miley (D-Harrison), a co-sponsor of the bill, said lawmakers assumed it would be tried on the West Side because of Watts’ vocal support of the bill and presence at the Capitol. 

“Even if it wasn’t spoken, everyone assumed,” Miley said.

Justice signed the bill into law in April of 2017.

Four months later, the billionaire governor announced at a Huntington rally with President Donald Trump that he was switching to the Republican Party. As part of his party change, many of Justice’s personnel focused on implementing the pilot project were fired or left.

The pilot project, which was set to expire in July 2021, and the promises to the Black community in Charleston were swept to the side, before what would prove to be a crucial time. The law would have increased health care access on the West Side; the coronavirus pandemic came and people experiencing poverty and Black West Virginians were infected at disproportionate rates.

The legislative committee tasked with overseeing the bill’s progress hasn’t met since 2019. And earlier this year, the legislation morphed into a grant program, from which the director of the state minority affairs office promised thousands of dollars to nonprofits in Kanawha County and the Eastern Panhandle. 

Where is the pilot project in the law, that could be measured and then replicated from one community to the next?

Giving money to nonprofits around the state wasn’t what lawmakers voted on, according to Delegate Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha.

Del. Mike Pushkin (D-Kanawha. Photo courtesy
West Virginia Legislature

“You have to remember this is the governor’s bill,” Pushkin said. “If he put his name on it, he should follow through and finish the job he started.”

Watts said the bungled bill is yet another misstep in the Justice administration’s attempts to address  poverty in one of the poorest states in the country.

“It shows the apathetic feeling this administration has toward people in poverty,” he said. “This is the real story: Justice knows nothing about this, has no interest in this and never had any interest in it as a Democratic governor.”

Justice’s press office did not respond to questions for this story.

Nearly half of West Side children live in poverty

On a chilly, gray morning in October, Watts walked through the streets of Charleston’s West Side, turning down a block where people called to him by name.

“This used to be one of the crime centers of the West Side,” he said, walking down Grant Street, just a few blocks from the church he leads. But through grants and donations, his nonprofit, Hope Community Development Corporation, had transformed the street with new, two-story housing complexes, rehabbed homes and boards across the ones that would hopefully soon be torn down. The sidewalks were clean; the street was quiet.

“Don’t think we’ve just sat over here and bemoaned and complained, no, we’ve been working really hard,” Watts said. “We have hope.”

Rev. Matthew Watts in Charleston’s West Side. Photo by F. Brian Ferguson

On the West Side, the parts of town Watts and others have cleaned up are surrounded by streets of vacant homes and empty store-fronts. The Family Dollar, which sits across the street from a boarded-up grocery store, now serves as the primary grocer for parts of the community.

Thirty-five percent of the West Side’s residents are Black, according to the 2018 American Community Survey. The median household income is just under $27,000, compared with a citywide median income of nearly $42,000. And in this neighborhood, 42% of children under 18 live in poverty, compared with 30% citywide.

Rev. Matthew Watts discusses the lack of attention state leaders have given to poverty in one of the poorest states in the country.

Add these economic disparities to the documented racial inequality in West Virginia, and the West Side’s Black residents fare poorly. 

The anti-poverty initiative was not about race, though race couldn’t be ignored when addressing poverty, Watts said.

W. Va. leaders used bill to hand out money around the state 

The pilot project was supposed to bring together local nonprofit organizations to “leverage existing resources,” according to the bill, in order to create a template to address poverty and substance abuse, improve the population’s health, increase labor force participation, and work on economic development in the area.

The bill required the state’s Herbert Henderson Office of Minority Affairs to establish a “community-based pilot demonstration project, for the duration of four years, to develop a model to promote public health through comprehensive community development in communities across West Virginia.”

Jill Upson has led the Herbert Henderson Office of Minority Affairs since 2018. She previously served two terms in the state House of Delegates, but was absent for the 2017 vote on the pilot project bill.

Jill Upson. Photo courtesy
West Virginia’s Herbert Henderson Office
of Minority Affairs

“I can’t really speak to what the roadblocks were to implementing it prior to my arrival in the office, but I can tell you that I certainly picked up the ball the second I walked in the door [in 2018],” she said. 

Upson said a lack of funding for the bill — it didn’t come with government funding, though Watts said the pilot project was estimated to cost around $150,000 — was to blame for the stalled project. 

“All it says in there is that it would use existing funds, but that isn’t very specific,” Upson said.

“By the end of December [2019], I had gotten at least a verbal commitment from [Justice] at the time to put some funding behind it, and then it was just a matter of determining how much,” she said.

Upson said she spent the beginning of this year working on creating “what the bill called for,” and, ultimately, she created the BRIDGE Grant Program, and distributed the funds she’d acquired to nonprofits in three West Virginia counties — Kanawha, Berkeley and Jefferson — serving people experiencing poverty.

In February, Justice and Upson announced the grant program would distribute $247,000 to programs in Kanawha County; a few of those grant recipients were physically located or served specific places in Charleston’s West Side, while others serve a broader geographic clientele

While Watts and Pushkin were not aware of a West Side pilot program, despite inquiring about the bill since it passed, Upson maintained that this grant program fulfilled both the law and the intent of the bill.

“Anyone who is stating that the West Side program was not created is highly misinformed,” she said.

Hope Townhouses on Charleston’s West Side. Photo by F. Brian Ferguson

The grant distribution hasn’t been seamless, according to Bishop Robert L. Haley III, who leads A More Excellent Way Life Center Church in the heart of the West Side. He applied for a BRIDGE grant to fund a computer lab in his church so neighbors could come inside and apply for jobs.

He received $12,500 — only half of the money he was promised by the state.

Staff with the Herbert Henderson Office of Minority Affairs won’t return his inquiries, Haley said.

“The process should have been simple, but it got really difficult,” he said. “We have not received a call or an email about the money.”

Upson said that her office was aware of any pending grant payments and had contacted the grantees.

Watts said he was “confident that Upson meant well” by designating grants to nonprofits, but said her office had no interest in fulfilling the original intent of the legislation, despite the efforts he made to share his information with her.

“The intent and purpose of the statute to create a pilot project to serve as a model and template for the rest of the state does not appear to have been accomplished with the projects that the HHOMA funded,” Watts said. 

‘I think Justice would be embarrassed’ 

Under state code, a bipartisan group of lawmakers, the Select Committee on Minority Affairs, is tasked with overseeing the Herbert Henderson Office of Minority Affairs. 

The group hasn’t met since the end of 2019 as legislative interim meetings were cancelled due to the pandemic.

Delegate Caleb Hanna (R-Nicholas), co-chairs the committee. He said the next time they’d hear an update would be after following the 2021 session — the same year the bill is set to expire. 

He hasn’t heard an update on the project since 2019.

“I can say confidently from what I’ve observed from the outside, Director Upson has done phenomenal work with the BRIDGE program. I think it’s important to note the role that our Governor played as well though,” Hanna said. 

Pushkin isn’t a member of the Committee on Minority Affairs. He said he’d asked around the Capitol about why the West Side program hadn’t moved forward, but the conversations didn’t go anywhere. 

“I think if they’d done the right thing and followed through with what they started, we’d be slightly ahead of the curve with some of the issues brought by the pandemic,” Pushkin said. “It’s unfortunate.”

The state is grappling with heightened unemployment, increased hunger and education gaps — all impacting the state’s poorest students.

“I would hope that maybe [COVID-19] has gotten the attention of both the executive and legislative branch of government because we’ll be living with the residual effects of COVID-19 for some time,” Watts said.  

He is now overseeing a large revitalization project on the West Side: an overhaul of buildings on two blocks to bring jobs and education to the area.

“We have chosen to focus our attention on the opportunities before us in the present and ahead in the future rather than to lament and mourn over missed opportunities of the past,” he said. 

Rev. Matthew Watts shared a hopeful future for Charleston’s West Side.

Nick Casey was Justice’s chief of staff during his Democratic administration and would have helped oversee the original implementation of the bill; he was fired after Justice’s party switch. 

He was with the governor when he’d campaigned on the West Side.

“I think [Justice] would be embarrassed to know if it looked like he used people on the West Side to get votes,” Casey said.

“It would not shock me that if someone would bring this to [Justice’s] attention, that he would say, ‘We need to do this,’” he continued.

 “But I don’t know who would do that now.”

Amelia Ferrell Knisely is a Report for America Corps member who covers poverty. A native of Rand in Kanawha County, she started her career in her home state then served as editor of The Contributor in...