WHEELING — It’s sprinkling rain on a cold day in early December, but Wheeling resident Austin Valine is keeping dry under the overpass that runs across 18th Street. For the last several months, this encampment has been home for Valine and his neighbors. He’s already moved out and now, he’s helping others pack up their things.
While a count from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development suggests there are just 15 people who are unsheltered throughout West Virginia’s entire Northern Panhandle, Valine can recall at least 50 people who he lived with at this single site.
“Did I live down here? Yeah, I was right here,” he says, pointing to a square outline in the ground where his tent used to be. “I mean, you get to shower at Catholic Charities [across the street]. They give you food if you need anything. They told me if I need anything still to just come on down.”
Now, the Division of Highways has asked everyone to vacate this site. Some will go to a seasonal winter-freeze shelter at the former Ohio Valley Medical Center, about a 15-minute walk from the camp. And Valine says there are easily dozens more people living in other sites across town, including a camp in the woods. That’s where Valine lives now.
In Wheeling and other West Virginia communities, officials are struggling to accurately measure a rise in chronic homelessness. Because they can’t get a handle on the scope of the problem, that leads to encampments like these, and a critical lack of emergency and permanent housing options.
“As those communities get dismantled and pushed out of the more secluded places … those folks are going to start coming closer into town and closer to the services that they need,” said Kate Marshall, a Wheeling-area advocate for people experiencing homelessness.
Struggling to keep up
Right now, most of West Virginia’s homelessness data comes largely from federally mandated “Point-in-Time” counts, conducted every January. Few agencies in the state have the resources to spend more time counting West Virginians who are unsheltered.
In Wheeling, the count is done by the Greater Wheeling Coalition for the Homeless, which covers Brooke, Hancock, Ohio, Marshall and Wetzel counties. During the first week in January, coalition staff and volunteers go to emergency shelters, camp sites, and other places where they know there are people experiencing homelessness.
Conducting the counts in January is a double-edged sword. For the people doing the counting, this is the most effective time to catch everyone who’s normally unsheltered, because many are inside and there are fewer places counters have to travel to.
“It is much harder to canvass vacant buildings, overgrown lots, extensive campsites … it’s much tougher to canvass those than it is to go to an emergency shelter, the coldest night of the week, and drive as many of those people inside as you can,” Greater Wheeling Coalition Director Lisa Badia said.
But in Wheeling, the Point-in-Time count occurs when the area’s only low-barrier emergency shelter, where entry requirements are minimal, is open. According to the federal definition, the people in this emergency shelter aren’t technically “unsheltered,” even if they would be for most of the year. So the number doesn’t represent the year-round picture, when the area’s count likely is much higher.
This discrepancy has real-world implications. Nonprofits like the Wheeling coalition use these counts to apply for grant funding. The area’s homeless population size dictates how much money they would normally get from the federal government to house people without shelter, as well as grants for substance use disorder, behavioral health and veterans programs.
Right now, Badia says, she doesn’t have the resources to do this kind of count more than once a year.
“The burden falls largely on my staff of 11 people, if we’re lucky, and a few handful of volunteers,” she said. “Do I think it can improve? I don’t know, because I’ve never had the luxury of having the amount of people that I’d like to have doing this.”
But officials have known for years that improving this process is key to tackling homelessness. In 2015, a state plan to end homelessness noted the importance of improving upon these Point-in-Time counts “to more accurately reflect the number of both sheltered and unsheltered people in West Virginia experiencing homelessness.” Most of the plan’s recommendations were never implemented.
And in 2020, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development agreed to consider changes to its guidelines for Point-in-Time counts, after a report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office noted the shortcomings of this once-a-year process for data collection.
HUD has yet to release new guidelines for data collection. But in 2021, they and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised groups like the Greater Wheeling Coalition not to do in-person counts. The most recent data Wheeling and the rest of the country have are from 2020.
Badia said the Greater Wheeling Coalition adheres to whatever rules it receives from HUD.
Hiring a homeless liaison
Last summer, Wheeling City Council members created a homeless liaison position in the city.
They decided one of the job’s largest responsibilities would include the maintaining of data on Wheeling’s unsheltered population.
“We’re not even sure how many homeless folks are in our community,” said city council member Rosemary Ketchum, who voted in favor of the position. “It’s really hard to build a comprehensive strategy from a range that large.”
The problem is so large that Melissa Adams, who started as Wheeling’s liaison in November, still finds herself in crisis mode.
In her first week, the city received notice from DOH that it needed the camp under the 18th Street overpass cleared. By December, Adams had spent most of her time negotiating to keep the camp open long enough for the winter freeze shelter to open.
“I am spending more time telling people what I want to do, than I’m being given the time to do what needs to be done,” Adams said.
Nonprofits and charitable organizations in Wheeling agree that having more representative data on the area’s unsheltered population would make it easier to get more resources for the area, and to plan responses and support.
“Having numbers that actually reflect what’s on the ground and for people to understand the dynamics of homelessness and how it plays out and that it is not a one-size-fits-all solution, is really important in having a solution to people who actually experience homelessness,” said Marshall.
That includes offering shelters and other housing options that accept people no matter their circumstances, whether that’s a history of criminal charges, a lack of photo identification, a substance use disorder or a disability.
Aside from Wheeling’s winter freeze shelter that operates from mid-December through mid-March out of a closed psychiatric ward, there are no other so-called “low-barrier” shelters in the city.
If the city really did have just 15 unsheltered people earlier this year, perhaps there would be no need for multiple overnight facilities or additional housing. But Marshall and others see more than just 15 people every day.
And the problem goes beyond housing, says John Moses, the CEO for Youth Services System, a Wheeling-area nonprofit that runs the temporary winter-freeze shelter.
“If there was more of an understanding of just the burdens these people have to carry, and that the solutions and the problems are complex,” Moses said. “When you have people suffering from mental illness and or addiction, there’s a lot of support that they need as well.”
Recognizing those who need help
Back beneath the overpass, Austin Valine is still cleaning up — he unlocks a phone for one person at the camp, helps someone locate an item of clothing and carries pizza into the site for volunteers and others. He says he wishes more people would engage and truly get to know Wheeling’s residents dealing with homelessness.
“That’s all we’re asking,” Valine said. “We’re not asking for any handouts, we’re asking for you to make us feel comfortable.”
At the Greater Wheeling Coalition for the Homeless, Badia says she’s noticed criticism of nonprofits tracking and responding to homelessness, but not a lot of attention to what causes homelessness.
“If you want to look at the unsheltered population — why is it growing?” she asked. “I think you have to dig into, not just the individual cases, and maybe talking to the folks that are experiencing that crisis, you know, to find out why they’re not taking advantage of rapid rehousing or the programs that are offered, but also look at what system placed them in that situation.”
While the federal government has acknowledged problems with its data collection practices, the Biden administration has said there’s also a problem with institutions like hospitals and correctional facilities, discharging people into the real world without a realistic home plan. And the housing options currently available often set people with lower income and criminal records up to fail.
Meanwhile, Adams — the new homeless liaison for Wheeling — says conversations that center people experiencing homelessness are already making a small difference. She was able to keep the 18th Street camp open long enough for people to move directly into the temporary winter-freeze shelter. Next, she hopes to help a local nonprofit lease the space from the Division of Highways. That way, it would be managed by a group who could provide important services at the moment — like educational opportunities — and eventually connect the people living there to permanent housing.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the name of John Moses’ organization. It is Youth Services System, not Youth Support Services.