Photo illustration by Emily Allen.

Back in 2013, officials in West Virginia and around the country were trying to figure out a better way to address homelessness. And on the day before Thanksgiving, then-Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin issued an executive order, telling staffers from eight different state agencies to pull together and tackle the problem.

“Ending homelessness requires a collaboration among state agencies, local governments, the private sector and service provider networks to coordinate program development, deliver essential services and provide housing,” Tomblin said at the time

The group Tomblin brought together produced a plan with an ambitious goal: to end homelessness in West Virginia.

And progress was made. West Virginia’s total unsheltered population, defined by those sleeping outdoors or in other places not meant for human habitation, has dropped by 66% in the last decade, according to data compiled by the National Alliance to End Homelessness

But the state group is no longer meeting. And West Virginians are still homeless.

Advocates say that the cooperative approach Tomblin promoted — a continuation of what his predecessors Bob Wise and Joe Manchin had done during their terms — was working. However, it has not been revived under current West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice.

Last week, when Charleston Mayor Amy Goodwin wrote to the governor and legislative leaders to urge a special session on homelessness, addiction and mental illness, Justice lashed out with sexist remarks and called her letter a political stunt.

At one point calling the mayor of West Virginia’s capital city “Amy, baby,” the governor concluded: “What’s this really all about? It’s nothing but a political move to cover up her deficiencies.”

In her letter, Goodwin asked state leaders to consider implementing programs that the city has piloted for behavioral health. Her letter didn’t mention the West Virginia Interagency Council on Homelessness, which people working on homelessness throughout West Virginia say improved the state’s situation six years ago, and could be helpful now. 

There are key policy changes that haven’t been made and simple data collection goals that remain unfulfilled from the blueprint the interagency task force created under Tomblin. And while the opioid crisis and the global pandemic created conditions that put more West Virginians at risk of becoming unsheltered, Justice hasn’t brought the group back together to revisit these issues, those involved in the efforts of previous administrators said.

“While this problem existed long before the COVID-19 pandemic, it has only gotten exponentially worse over the last 18-months and we fear it will only continue to get worse throughout our State and the Nation over the next several years,” Goodwin wrote last Wednesday

Across the state, other leaders are noticing the same things. Some are coming up with local solutions. In Wheeling, city leaders created a new position in their government to act as a liaison for populations experiencing homelessness. In Harrison and Doddridge counties, people are fighting the stigma attached to those experiencing homelessness, which can make it harder to house them.

“It doesn’t feel to me like we’re in the type of political environment that’s going to value making ending homelessness a priority,” said Zach Brown, executive director for the West Virginia Coalition to End Homelessness. “Maybe I’m wrong? I hope I’m wrong.”

Neither Justice’s office nor Goodwin responded to requests for comment on the interagency council, or Goodwin’s request for a special session to address broader initiatives on homelessness.

It’s 2021 and West Virginians are still homeless

In 2013, Kim Walsh remembers feeling daunted by the number of people experiencing homelessness that normal data collection couldn’t identify. 

The former deputy commissioner for the state Bureau for Behavioral Health and Health Services knew there were more people experiencing homelessness than could be seen in shelters — there were families doubling up in homes, or living in unconventional settings like vans and campers.

“You don’t always know what those numbers are,” said Walsh, who now lives in Georgia and works for a behavioral health consulting firm. “It’s not easy to identify what the data really is.” 

U.S. housing officials were pioneering new tactics at the time that connected people immediately with permanent housing, rather than shuffling them away to temporary shelters. Tomblin’s order for an interagency council followed this trend with a more hopeful and proactive attitude sweeping the nation at the time, and Walsh believes their work made a difference to West Virginians dealing with homelessness, and those who help house them.

More West Virginia case managers in homelessness shifted to a “housing-first” model that prioritized permanent over temporary housing. The effort also introduced nonprofits to members of state government and gave state agencies the opportunity to learn what homelessness looked like on the ground level. Walsh said most of the Tomblin group’s report could probably be updated and moved forward with relative ease. 

“To say anything less — that you think any level of people experiencing homelessness is acceptable — you just really don’t want to say that,” Walsh said. “We just took the position that it’s our objective that people in our state will be housed.”

One of the largest problems identified in their 2015 report, which still remains an issue today, is a shortage of available and affordable rental units. In West Virginia, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, only about a quarter of West Virginians don’t live in owner-occupied housing. As recently as 2019, the National Low Income Housing Coalition reported a shortage in rental homes that are available to extremely low-income West Virginians.

Leah Willis, who worked with the Tomblin group and now directs the statewide Supportive Services for Veterans and Families program, said the shortage is even worse in more rural areas where there aren’t even temporary shelters available. Willis oversees community action councils throughout the state that help veterans who are homeless. When there are no available apartments or rental properties, that means clients have to spend more time in a shelter, or a hotel where temporary shelters aren’t available.

“Across the country there’s a housing shortage,” said Willis. “We have really good outreach people and they have a landlord base … the relationships that have been developed by the caseworkers and the community have helped a lot.” 

Members of the Tomblin council who developed the plan suggested meeting with landlords who have restrictive tenant policies that might bar someone exiting homelessness from living there. They encouraged more developers to build affordable housing units in West Virginia through programs that provide tax credits for such projects.

Willis and others maintain that there are more units identified and available now than there were before the group’s work. But depending on who’s experiencing homelessness, others who worked in and with the council said, there are still barriers in place for people leaving correctional facilities and young adults coming out of foster care. 

“Kind of like obtaining employment, we discovered a lot of persons who had convictions were not allowed to have housing, public or private,” said Rick Staton, another member of the Tomblin council and the former deputy secretary for the state’s Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety. 

Prioritizing the fight

When Rebecca Derenge, the state coordinator for homeless education with the West Virginia Department of Education, thinks back to the council, she remembers being surprised at how many other organizations existed who cared about getting people housed.

Derenge was, and still is, funded by the federal government to identify and support West Virginia students experiencing homelessness. And she says that bringing all the parties to the table to collaborate helps both government and the private sector get things done.

“When a committee dismantles, you hope that the people listened and will take it to the next level,” Derenge said. “I do think that it would benefit us now as well.”

Brown, with the West Virginia Coalition to End Homelessness, said he misses the interagency council because it was a way to keep state officials — lawmakers included — informed. 

This communication could’ve prevented laws that Brown said are damaging to harm reduction efforts and limit the number of places available for people with drug charges and convictions who are barred from certain other types of housing. 

“What we bring to the table is being out in communities, doing direct service with homeless people and people who are about to be homeless,” Brown said. “We get a day-in, day-out look at where the gaps are in our system.”

Some of these kinds of things are happening in places like Charleston, where local leaders have worked against successful harm reduction programs and, as the Charleston Gazette-Mail reported, a current measure before city council would ban camping out in public places.

Justice poked back at Charleston’s mayor, saying that homeless numbers statewide have been improving, but not so in the capital city. 

The National Alliance to End Homelessness shows that the total West Virginia homeless population has dropped about 3 percent in the last five years, basically the period of time Justice has been governor. But over that same time period, the unsheltered population — those living on the streets — has doubled. In the Charleston region (defined by the alliance as Kanawha, Putnam, Boone and Clay counties), over the last two years — basically Goodwin’s time in office — the unsheltered population has gone up by 550 percent, according to the alliance.

“We have a very solvable problem,” Brown said. “It’s not beyond the possibility that we could end homelessness in West Virginia.”

Emily Allen is a Report for America corps member, and the community watchdog reporter for Mountain State Spotlight.